Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman Pantheon, 226pp
Alan Lightman has made a unique career finding imaginative ways to bridge the “two cultures” of science and humanities. A novelist and physicist, he was the first person to be awarded a joint professorship in literature and astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He made his name as a writer of fiction with Einstein’s Dreams in 1993 – a lyrical series of short sketches, each one an attempt at a different understanding of time, and all rooted in the freewheeling mind of Einstein as he grappled with relativity in Berne, Switzerland, in 1905. That book drew comparisons with the playful philosophical fiction of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, and became an international bestseller. Since then, Lightman has published 17 books, each of which dwell in different ways on life, the universe and everything.
In a TED talk, Lightman drew the distinction between his two habits of mind in this way: “The scientist tries to name things; the artist tries to avoid naming things.” As he approaches his three score and 10, the gap between those two positions apparently becomes ever more urgent to him. This latest curious book of essays is another stab at resolving that universal either/or.
The starting point for its reflections is a kind of epiphany Lightman experienced 12 months or so ago. For many years, he has spent his summers and, occasionally, parts of his winters, on a tiny island off the coast of Maine. Six families have houses on it, each with their own jetty. By necessity all the families have become at home in boats. One clear night, Lightman was chugging out to the island alone when he decided to turn off his engine and his lights and just drift. He lay on his back and gazed at the “sky vibrating with stars”, and not for the first time in his life experienced a kind of intense weightlessness, a powerful sense of eternity, a loss of self; he suggests when he returned from that Wordsworthian mental journey he had no idea how long he had been travelling.
This experience inevitably got him thinking, somewhat in the manner of the star-gazing ancients or visionary Romantics. The book, a series of fragments of philosophy of mind, and insights into the creative lives of the great scientists, and attention to the materiality of the universe in both its largest and smallest components, is the result of those wandering meditations.
Lightman’s discursive method is full of insight into some of the mysteries of the physical world, as well as the physics of mystery. He uses his own biography – the little science lab he created in his bedroom closet in Memphis, Tennessee, aged 12 – to demonstrate an intact sense of wonder at what we know and what we don’t. At the heart of his mediation is this neat formulation of the boundaries of scientific understanding: “The infinite is not merely a lot more of the finite.”
Lightman has a sympathetic gift for recreating the leaps of faith in scientific advance. At the same time, he feels himself in a wonderland of shifting scales. He maps out the heavens, concentrates on the veins of a leaf, tries to fathom the evolution of the hummingbird, the veracity of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and returns often to the thrilling chutzpah of Einstein rethinking time and space. Does he end up much the wiser after this latest record of attention to his pattern-making mind? Of course not. Does that make the effort of tracking his progress worthwhile? Of course.