Lightman, Alan P(aige) 1948-
LIGHTMAN, Alan P(aige) 1948-
PERSONAL: Born November 28, 1948, in Memphis, TN; son of Richard (owner of a movie theater chain) and Jeanne (a dancing teacher; maiden name, Garretson) Lightman; married Jean Greenblatt (a painter), November 28, 1976; children: Elyse, Kara. Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1970; California Institute of Technology, Ph.D., 1974.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, Room 14E-303, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139.
CAREER: Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics, 1974-76; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, assistant professor of astronomy, 1976-79, lecturer in astronomy and physics, 1979-89; Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, staff astrophysicist, 1979-89; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, professor of science and writing and senior lecturer in physics, 1989-95, John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities, 1995-2001, head of program in writing and humanistic studies, 1991-97, adjunct professor of humanities, 2001—.
MEMBER: American Physical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), American Association for the Advancement of Science (fellow), American Astronomical Society, Society for Literature and Sciences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award for best book in physical science, Association of American Publishers, 1990, for Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists; Critics' Choice award for the best ten nonfiction books of the year, Boston Globe, 1991, for Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe; PEN New England/Boston Globe Winship runner-up for Einstein's Dreams, 1993; named a Literary Light by Boston Public Library, 1995; Andrew Gemant Award, American Institute of Physics, 1996; Gyorgy Kepes Prize, MIT Council for the Arts, 1998; National Book Award finalist, 2000, for The Diagnosis; Distinguished Alumnus Award, California Institute of Technology, and Distinguished Arts and Humanities Medal for Literature, Germantown Arts Alliance (TN), both 2003; Massachusetts Book Award finalist, 2004, for Reunion.
Problem Book in Relativity and Gravitation (textbook), Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1975.
Radiative Processes in Astrophysics (textbook), Wiley (New York, NY), 1979.
(Editor, with James Cornell) Revealing the Universe: Prediction and Proof in Astronomy, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1982.
Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe: Essays on the Human Side of Science, Scribner (New York, NY), 1984.
A Modern-Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court, and Other Essays on Science, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
(With Roberta Brawer) Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1990.
Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
Time for the Stars: Astronomy in the 1990s, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
Great Ideas in Physics: The Conservation of Energy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Theory of Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics, McGraw (New York, NY), 1992, 3rd edition, 2000.
Einstein's Dreams (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
Good Benito (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
Dance for Two: Selected Essays, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1996.
The Diagnosis (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor, with Robert Atwan) The Best American Essays 2000, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2000.
The World Is Too Much with Me: Finding Private Space in the Wired World, Hart House, University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Reunion (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2003.
(Editor, with Daniel Sarewitz and Christina Dressler) Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, Island Press (Washington, DC), 2003.
A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2005.
Columnist for Science 86, 1982-86. Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, New Yorker, Daedalus, New York Times, Science, Atlantic, New York Review of Books, World Monitor, Granta, Discover, Smithsonian, and Washington Post.
SIDELIGHTS: Alan P. Lightman is a physicist who has produced scientific writings of interest to the general reader as well as to the specialist. Praised for nonfiction works that include the award-winning Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, Lightman began a new chapter in his writing career in 1993, with the publication of Einstein's Dreams, his first work of imaginative fiction.
In his book Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe: Essays on the Human Side of Science, Lightman addresses such complex subjects as astronomy, cosmology, and particle physics. Sarah Boxer, writing in the New York Times Book Review, credited Lightman with "leading a good-humored tour into unfamiliar, perhaps even unfriendly, territory."
In Lightman's 1986 work, A Modern-Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court, and Other Essays on Science, he reflects upon topics ranging from darkness to space exploration and from snowflakes to the more mundane aspects of life as a scientist. Chicago Tribune reviewer Patrick Reardon, describing a science writer's task as attempting "to explain complicated scientific information in simple and entertaining terms," noted that Lightman "communicates the beauty, mystery, elegance, danger, fulfillment, frustration, irony and potential of science." Washington Post contributor Gregory Benford was particularly impressed with Lightman's more personal reflections and said that with these, Lightman "is pointed and savvy with a light touch."
Lightman is also the author, with Roberta Brawer, of Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, an ambitious work distilled from interviews the coauthors conducted with twenty-seven cosmologists. Through these scientists' discussions of their personal lives, ideas, and opinions about recent developments in science, Origins explores the nonscientific factors that shape the scientific enterprise. Dennis Overbye wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Origins "should prove invaluable" to scholars and writers pondering current scientific perspectives.
Among Lightman's other works are Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe, which traces science's evolving perspective on the universe, and Time for the Stars: Astronomy in the 1990s, a book that aims to render astrophysics accessible to the lay reader. Donna Seaman commented on his edited collection, 2003's Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, in Booklist, noting: "The premise for this stellar essay collection is the observation that although technology is clearly a double-edged sword, an exponentially increasing force rich in promise and rife with peril, we rarely question the necessity or consider the consequences of technological innovations. Lightman reminds us of our deep need for silence, solitude, and stillness."
In addition to his nonfiction, Lightman has also embarked on a second career as a novelist, beginning with a free-wheeling contemplation of time titled Einstein's Dreams. As the author once commented: "I have always been interested in both science and the humanities, especially writing and literature. As a child, I built rockets and I also wrote poetry. It has not been easy to pursue both of these directions, and for a long time I put my literary interests on the back burner. In the early 1980s, I began writing essays on science. This versatile form of writing was a good bridge connecting my two halves. My early role models in science were Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould, and I also read every essay written by the master, E. B. White. Other science and naturalist writers that I read and admired include John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, David Quammen, James Gleick, and Richard Preston. I have continued to work as a professional scientist while writing.
"In 1991 I turned to fiction. My favorite contemporary fiction writers include Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, R. K. Narayan, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi (a scientist), Salman Rushdie, and Michael Ondaatje. I especially like writers whose writing distorts reality in order to see reality more clearly. I also admire writers whose writing is not only beautiful but also crosses cultures, conveying a foreign world and its mentality. I hope in my writing to convey the culture of science, which is as foreign to most readers as India is to an American."
Lightman's fiction attempts to cross cultures, illustrating a scientist's take on the world at large to lay readers. In Einstein's Dreams the world-renowned physicist falls asleep at his Swiss office and dreams about time itself, each dream becoming a separate "chapter." Overbye, in the New York Times Book Review, called this work "a kind of post-modern hybrid of science writing and fantasy . . . [that] owes much to fabulists like Italo Calvino, whose book Invisible Cities seems to be [its] model." The thirty brief fables that comprise Lightman's novel are stories "grounded in precise crystalline prose," of a quality comparable to Calvino's writings, according to Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Kakutani went on to note that "The dreams Mr. Lightman has given the fictional Einstein also deal with the mysteries of space and time, but they have little to do, for the lay reader anyway, with the technicalities of quantum theory and everything to do with the human condition and its time-ridden existence." Lee Lescaze concluded in the Wall Street Journal that within in the various worlds Lightman has created—worlds with sometimes vastly altered states of time—his characters lose personal freedoms. In the world where everyone is immortal, "everyone forever has a father, a mother, a grandfather, a grandmother, and so on. No one comes into his own. All questions provoke endless deliberation. There is no individual freedom." Simpson Garfinkel echoed these points in Voice Literary Supplement: "Each story is a psychological investigation of how people would be changed by distortions in the way time flows."
Voice Literary Supplement reviewer Carol Anshaw also compared Lightman, "in his best moments," to Italian literary master Calvino, deeming Einstein's Dreams a "small, well-crafted piece of fabulism." As Lescaze noted, the novel "is a meditation, a fable, a pleasure. Its appeal is a tribute to the enduring power of the mystery of time—even in a post-Einstein world." But for its author, the novel also captures the connection between scientific meditation and artistic creation. In an interview with David L. Wheeler for Chronicle of Higher Education, Lightman explained: "When a scientific idea is emerging in the mind of a scientist and before it gets distilled into an equation, that process is very similar to any creative process, artistic or literary."
Lightman's second novel, Good Benito, received mixed reviews from critics. The novel details the experiences of protagonist Bennett Lang, a young physicist from Memphis, Tennessee, who embarks on a career in science. The title comes from Lang's childhood pal, John Lerner, who remarks, "Nice coils, Good Benito." Garfinkel, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, characterized Good Benito as "a novel that's more conventional and aimed squarely at a nonscientific reader. Where Einstein's Dreams was a whimsical exploration into scientific fantasy, Good Benito is a straightforward attempt at portraying a physicist as a young man." Garfinkel continued by saying that Lightman's work "is built upon well-worn cliches that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time around a big-university physics department." But despite its conventionality, James Idema, in the Chicago Tribune, maintained that Good Benito's "best passages are charged with a similar exultation [to Einstein's Dreams]." Those exultations are contained in Lightman's ability to reveal science in poetic ways as seen in his first novel, Idema contended.
In his review of the work for the Washington Post Book World, Richard Grant called Good Benito "a brief novel of breathtaking delicacy and grace." Commenting on his own prose style in an interview with Smith, Lightman added that it is deliberately spare. "I like to let the readers do much of the writing for me," he noted. "Readers are so good at visualizing things, and when you say too much, you block the reader's invitation to participate in the imaginary experience." In this delicate and spare style Lightman creates his world as "an endeavor to construct a human equation, using the events of an individual's biography as his factors," according to John Tague in the Times Literary Supplement. "Scientists remark with some regularity that a certain idea, often a flash of insight, was so beautiful that they knew at once it must be the truth," Grant noted at the conclusion of his review, thus capturing the essence of Lightman's fictional writings. "The same can be said of Lightman's novel. I suggest reading Good Benito at one sitting (it's short enough to do so comfortably), late on a winter's night perhaps, while listening to Mahler."
Lightman's third novel, The Diagnosis, features Bill Chalmers, a businessman in the information industry who lives his life via the Internet, cell phones, pagers, computers, and other electronic communication devices. Most of his contacts with other people—including his own son—come through such things as e-mail. One day Chalmers, overwhelmed by the amount of information he is taking in, suddenly realizes he has forgotten who he is. Although the malady lasts only a short time, it leaves him confused and sluggish and he becomes a burden to his family, as he loses his job and his will to live. "To Lightman's credit," wrote Eric Wieffering in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "he avoids taking the easy way out. This is no tale of triumph over physical adversity." "Lightman's evocation of the growth of Chalmers's interior life, as set against the disappearance of his normal outward life, is both luminous and dark," wrote David Dodd in Library Journal. Keith Miller, in the Times Literary Supplement, called The Diagnosis "a powerful critique of a barbarously accelerated society," while in the San Francisco Chronicle, Floyd Skloot found Lightman's book to be "a funny, troubling story about our culture's devotion to technology at the expense of humanity." According to Donna Seaman in Booklist, The Diagnosis is "a work of vivid sensuousness, sparkling intelligence, and poignant beauty." James Hynes, writing in the Washington Post Book World, called the novel "original and grimly unsentimental, by any measure a major accomplishment, written in austerely beautiful prose." Abraham Verghese, a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review, said that Lightman "reveals himself to be a highly original and imaginative thinker."
Lightman's novel Reunion concerns Charles, a once-promising poet who, in middle age, finds himself working as a professor at a small college, leading a comfortable but dreary life. When Charles uncharacteristically decides to attend his thirtieth college reunion, he vividly recalls an intense love affair he had as a college student. Remembering contradictory versions of the affair forces Charles to confront himself as a young man, and eventually his reality and self-identity dissolve into a haze of illusion. Lightman "has a Proustian concern for the manipulations of time and memory, . . . the infinite present of youth, the eternal regret of midlife," wrote Gail Caldwell in a review of Reunion for the Boston Globe. In the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Wilson dubbed the novel "elegant," and added that it is "spare, charged with meaning." Praising the book as "a profoundly human story, rich in depth and nuance," Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer Robert Wiersema added that "Lightman writes with a lightness, a lyrical understatedness that belies the underlying depths and complexities of the novel."
Lightman sums up the dichotomy of his work and life in his A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, wherein he writes: "Ever since I was a young boy, my passions have been divided between science and art. I was fortunate to make a life in both, as a physicist and a novelist, and even to find creative sympathies between the two, but I have had to live with a constant tension in myself and a continual rumbling in my gut."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alaska Quarterly, fall-winter, 1996, interview with Lightman.
Atlantic, September, 1991.
Baltimore Sun, September 24, 2000.
Booklist, August, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Diagnosis, p. 2111; October 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Best American Essays 2000, p. 312; June 1, 2003, review of Reunion; December, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, p. 638.
Boston Globe, March 4, 1982; December 20, 1992; December 27, 1993, interview with Lightman; September 10, 2000; July 20, 2003, review of Reunion.
Boston Herald, October 5, 2000, interview with Lightman.
Caltech News, fall, 2003.
Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), November 26, 2000, Jack Harville, "Dark Humor Helps Leaven Stark Horror in Diagnosis,"p.F6.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 3, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1987; April 2, 1995, sec. 14, p. 6; October 17, 2000, interview with Lightman; September 24, 2000.
Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 1995, p. 12.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 1993, pp. A6, A13; September 22, 2003.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 1, 2000.
Concord Journal (Concord, MA), October 19, 2000, interview with Lightman.
Economist, January 16, 1993.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 30, 2000; August 16, 2003, Robert Wierseba, review of Reunion.
Independent (London, England), November 26, 2000, Edward Stern, review of The Diagnosis, p. 54.
Library Journal, September 15, 2000, David Dodd, review of The Diagnosis, p. 113; October 1, 2000, Nancy P. Shires, review of The Best American Essays 2000, p. 94.
Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1993; September 10, 2000.
Nature, March 4, 1993.
Newsday, September 10, 2000; October 29, 2000, interview with Lightman.
Newsweek, December 7, 1992.
New Yorker, June 3, 1991, p. 104; November 20, 2000.
New York Review of Books, May 16, 1991; February 22, 2001.
New York Times, January 5, 1993, p. C16; September 24, 2000, Abraham Verghese, "Crashed"; November 20, 2000, interview with Lightman; January 28, 2003, Lab Coat Chic: The Arts Embrace Science, p. F1.
New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1984, p. 16; September 16, 1990, p. 23; January 3, 1993, p. 10; September 24, 2000; June 27, 2003, review of Reunion.
Observer (London, England), January 31, 1993.
People, June 14, 1993, interview with Lightman.
Physics Today, February, 1997, interview with Lightman.
Publishers Weekly, January 9, 1995, interview with Lightman, pp. 47-48; July 3, 2000, review of The Diagnosis, p. 45; September 18, 2000, review of The Best American Essays 2000, p. 100.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 17, 2000.
San Francisco Examiner, March 31, 1993, interview with Lightman.
Seattle Post Intelligencer, March 29, 1993.
Seattle Times, October 10, 2000.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), January 28, 2001, Eric Wieffering, "Grim Diagnosis Gains Strength as Its Protagonist Weakens," p. F14.
Time, January 18, 1993.
Times (London, England), October 25, 2000.
Times Literary Supplement, June 23, 1995, p. 27; October 13, 2000.
Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1993, pp. 22-23.
Wall Street Journal, February 1, 1993, p. A8; February 2, 1993.
Washington Post, January 26, 1987; June 9, 1993, interview with Lightman; August 10, 2003, review of Reiunion.
Washington Post Book World, September 2, 1990, p. 4; February 6, 1995, p. 9; April 23, 2000, interview with Lightman; November 26, 2000.
Alan Lightman Home Page,http://www.alanlightman.com (July 24, 2004).
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web site,http://web.mit.edu/ (July 24, 2004), "Alan Lightman."*