Alan Lightman: On Science, Writing, and Passion

Story posted May 27, 2005

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Alan Lightman addresses a packed house at the Bowdoin Chapel.

Internationally known author, physicist and educator Alan Lightman gave a talk at the Bowdoin Chapel on Friday in which he chronicled his parallel careers in science and writing.

Lightman, whose novel, Einstein’s Dreams, was an international bestseller, is one of six people receiving an honorary doctorate degree at Bowdoin’s 200th Commencement on Saturday.

Currently an adjunct professor at MIT, Lightman has plumbed the intersection of art and science in essays, novels, and scientific publications.

Lightman described a childhood in which he was “mesmerized by the sound and movement of words,” even as he filled the basement with science projects.

“I loved the shining purity of mathematics,” he said, “and saved my math homework for last, like bits of chocolate awaiting me after a meal.”

Lightman would eventually earn a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology, embark on a stellar research career, and publish widely – as poet, novelist, reviewer, essayist and science writer – before heading to M.I.T. to teach writing and physics. He is the author of four novels.

“I have lived in two communities for many years,” he said, “in both the company of scientists and artists. The difference between those worlds, I’ve learned, comes down to the naming of things. The scientist tries to name things and the artist tries to avoid the naming of things.”

Lightman said he viewed the difference between science and art as “a matter of framing questions and answers.”

“Scientists break problems into smaller and smaller ones, until we get to one small enough to answer,” he said. “Artists often don’t care what the answer is, because definite answers don’t exist. The exquisite contradictions of the human heart, to me, are what make life interesting.”

Lightman described his own experience of the creative process in both writing and science: “I lose all sense of my body, my surroundings … I am just a pure spirit. I remember when I was working on a research problem as a graduate student. One day I had the sensation of my head lifting off my shoulders. I suddenly saw into my research problem as I never had before. I was completely alone with the problem and I solved it. When I looked up at the clock, an entire day had passed.”

Speaking to the capacity crowd, many of whom were current and graduating Bowdoin students, Lightman urged the students to ”find something that you are passionate about, something that you are compelled to do. Find it and hold onto it, because only with passion is life truly worth living.”

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