Posted by: Staff | 11.29.2007

Alan Lightman mixes science and the supernatural


On November 6, author and theoretical physicist Alan Lightman spoke at the Harvard Book Store. He was there to promote his new novel, Ghost, a tale of a banker who loses his job and is forced to take up a temporary job at a mortuary. When he sees something inexplicable one day, he is forced to confront the supernatural. Mr. Lightman read select passages from the book before taking questions and speaking about his inspiration and beliefs.

Alan Lightman brings a unique approach to the subject because of his background. In 1989, Lightman became the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in both the sciences and humanities. As a scientist, he has made a number of important contributions to the field of astrophysics, including research on accretion disks, stellar dynamics, and relativistic plasmas. Today, however, he focuses primarily on his writing. When asked whether he misses science, he replied, “Oh, I miss it terribly,” but that “science is a young person’s game. After your 30s you’re past your peak as a scientist.”He contrasted this to writing, where experience is invaluable: “Any number of romances I have are not going to help me as a theoretical physicist.”

Lightman’s most famous work is his 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams, which explores unconventional perceptions of time in the hypothetical context of Einstein’s visions. Ghost, while similar in that it mixes science with a more fantastic element, is very different in the concepts it explores. “I think people have a fascination with death,” he said. “In a funeral home, the boundary between death and living is vivid.” Lightman went on to speak in more general terms: “A lot of religious belief,” he said, “is supernatural. It’s in a being that can violate the laws of nature.” Lightman cited some fascinating statistics: according to one poll, 82 out of 100 people believe in miracles, and 83 out of 100 believe that something lives on after death.

Several attendees brought up the question of the inherent conflict between science and religion. “There are certain types of [belief] that are incompatible with science, but many gray areas,” he said. “A large fraction of scientists believe in God, but miracles are not allowed for almost all scientists.” Miracles, Lightman said, go against the most basic tenets of science—that there are underlying rules to the universe, and that those rules must be obeyed. “But,” he continued, “you can still believe in a god who got the universe started, and then stopped intervening.” Asked about arguing over the existence of something that could theoretically make itself undetectable, Lightman admitted that “a scientist can talk about the existence of God, but only as an ordinary citizen. It… lies outside the realm of science. Anything is possible. I’m not going to argue about that.”

Mr. Lightman acknowledged that science and religion have a lot in common—for one, that they are the two dominant forces that have shaped civilization. Furthermore, Lightman contended that both scientists and believers in the supernatural ultimately rely on faith—faith that nothing can dodge cause and effect, or faith that something can. The motivation behind both sides of the argument is the same: “the desire to have more control over the world. To me, that is the greatest irony.”

To hear someone like Mr. Lightman is enthralling—indeed, I found the question and answer segment to be far more interesting than the excerpts from Ghost. (Of course, it’s not a fair comparison, given that the excerpts were out-of-context, and that a book is naturally a more long-form medium.) He does not just deal in black and white, but looks at things from myriad new and unexpected perspectives. He is no fanatic; he approaches both sides of the debate logically and with a cool head. He does not fall into traditional all-or-nothing stereotypes, and is all the more persuasive for it.

Alan Lightman is a great physicist, a skilled writer, and a fascinating speaker. If his track record is any indication, Ghost—when given the time it deserves—will be another fascinating read.

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  1. Toph, great work! I enjoyed reading your peice. Perhaps now I’ll read one of Lightman’s books… or study his contributions to science.

  2. As always, your writing amazes Mr. Tucker. While prior to reading this article I had no idea ass to who Alan Lightman is, I now feel as if we have been friends for years. College roommates who went on to separate endeavors, but still have tea every once in a while and chat about current events.

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