Science needs its poets, and Alan Lightman is the perfect amalgam of scientist (an astrophysicist) and humanist (a novelist who’s also a professor of the practice of humanities at M.I.T.), and his latest book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, is an elegant and moving paean to our spiritual quest for meaning in an age of science ... Ultimately, scientists must convince other scientists that their theory of the absolute is true (or at least not false), and to do so they must leave the mystical realm of personal experience and return to the lab. But Lightman’s aim in this insightful and provocative musing is to remind us of the centrality of subjectivity in all human endeavors, including those of science.
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is what we can call a grand unified intellectual narrative ... The book comprises 20 short vignettes, each dedicated to a big idea — stars, truth, centeredness, death — weaving together expected and unexpected sources. The sections are short but thoughtful, allowing the reader to savor a piece at a time or to make a meal of the whole ... the book does, at points, feel like Chicken Soup for the Materialist’s Non-Existent Soul, but those moments are few, in a work of great range, sensitivity and thoughtfulness ... Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine demonstrates Lightman’s ability to make the most abstract notions accessible to all. No background is needed in physics, philosophy, religion or any other field to fully understand every step of the wide-ranging intellectual trek. No matter who you are, you will emerge ready to be more impressive at your next dinner party.
Each twig, ant hill or rounded stone—as well as the starry backdrop of the book’s title—serves as muse for Mr. Lightman’s speculations about the physical and metaphysical realms. The elegant and evocative prose draws in the reader, and I felt as if I were strolling alongside the author while he thought aloud. Indeed, it was a challenge to keep pace, as I repeatedly wandered off into reveries triggered by the narrative. Here is a book in which even a colonoscopy becomes grist for the philosophical mill ... Mr. Lightman’s cognitive turmoil is summed up in a reflection on the death of his parents, in which he reluctantly accepts the 'impossible truth' that they no longer exist. 'I wish I believed,' he adds poignantly.
Lightman does not possess Calvino’s structural rigour, his brilliant hold on irony as the defining principle of the human condition, but his 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 humming bird, 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.
The book covers much ground likely to be familiar, such as famous experiments done by men made famous by them. Truisms appear, too, such as the existence of 'major differences in the truths of science and religion and the manner in which those truths are discovered.' Perhaps the author’s mixing of established observations with fresh perspectives will charm one set of readers. Others may find some of the author’s excursions too philosophical. Lightman ponders his big, knotty subjects in clear prose. He is content to be alive, aches and pains and all.
Physicist-novelist Lightman (Screening Room, 2015) strives to, if not reconcile, at least put religion and science on good speaking terms. These personal and historical essays on religion, science, and religion-and-science are assembled to draw the reader ever deeper in ... An illuminating, deeply human book.
Novelist and physicist Lightman (The Accidental Universe) mesmerizes in this collection of essays that explores the connections between scientific ideas and the wider world ... Lightman’s illuminating language and crisp imagery aim to ignite a sense of wonder in any reader who’s ever pondered the universe, our world, and the nature of human consciousness.
One of our most reliable interpreters of science offers a slender book of ruminations that venture wide and deep ... leitmotif of the book is humanity's innate desire for absolutes, even though few exist in a relative world. Lightman locates those that do in science and philosophy rather than religion. From Newton and Galileo to Einstein and Aristotle, from St. Augustine and the Buddha to contemporary theological thought, Lightman presents a distilled but comprehensive survey of the search for meaning, or the lack thereof, in our longing to be part of the infinite.