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Alan Lightman is a highly respected astrophysicist who writes both science essays and novels. He has successfully published in both fields, with his work in both areas emphasizing the lives of those behind the work of science.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Science and Literature Star from the Start
Born to a movie theater owner and a dance instructor, Lightman grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the post-World War II economic boom. After the Allies declared victory over the Axis forces in 1945, the U.S. experienced an unprecedented period of relative peace and economic prosperity. During this time, Lightman was in school, excelling in both science and literature. During high school, for instance, he received awards at science fairs and literary competitions, both on the state level. He went on to study physics at Princeton, and, in 1974, completed his doctorate in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.
Writer of Science, Lay Science, and Fiction
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell and serving as a Harvard professor, Lightman began to write in earnest. While maintaining his research in physics and continuing to write poetry, in the 1980s, Lightman also began to publish essays about science for non-science audiences. He was participating in a recently popular discussion about the origins of the universe, made more mainstream after the 1965 discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two Bell lab employees, accidentally discovered the radiation, which presented itself as large background static on a research telescope; the discovery added a key missing piece in the theory of the earth’s origins and provided specific evidence for the Big Bang. Audiences were readily interested in Lightman’s writings, which made such complex theories concrete for readers with no background in science. The 1990s also saw the development of string theory, a field of theoretical physics that attempts to explain matter formation in the immediate moments after the Big Bang. Lightman’s work incorporates these kinds of highly complex scientific ideas in a manner that regular readers can access. His work appeared in publications like The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker.
In 1993, Lightman ventured into the world of fiction by publishing Einstein’s Dreams, a story imagining what worlds Albert Einstein, renowned theorist of relativity, might create in his dreams. Critics embraced his work, which Lightman says is influenced by writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. His next novels continued to receive critical attention, establishing Light-man as a significant voice in both literature and science.
Lightman continues to write, and has taught both physics and writing at MIT. He became the first teacher to serve a joint professorship in science and the humanities. He explains, ”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.”
Works in Literary Context
Science for Lay Readers
Lightman has established himself as a legitimate scientist, authoring physics textbooks and originating his own scientific discoveries. But, he has dedicated much of his career to connecting theoretical physics to regular human life. In Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe: Essays on the Human Side of Science (1984), for instance, Lightman discusses astronomy and particle physics. A Modern-Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court, and Other Essays on Science (1986) explores both the life of the scientist and the elements of space travel in an enjoyable way. Some of Lightman’s science books attempt to convey technical topics, such as astrophysics, while others review science more generally. Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in Twentieth-Century Science (2005), for example, explains major scientific principles from the theory of relativity to the importance to DNA gene sequencing.
In the tradition of Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, Lightman’s fiction imagines new worlds for his characters that do not abide by regular rules for time and space. His novels present days that do not last for twenty-four hours, hours that do not last for sixty minutes, and minutes that last for much longer than sixty seconds. While establishing new rules for temporal and spatial boundaries, Lightman’s work could be classified as science fiction. His characters and themes are not overwhelmed or overshadowed by technological advancements; instead, regular lives are altered by Lightman’s bending ofphysical rules in order for epiphanies to occur.
Works in Critical Context
Critics praise Lightman’s work, both nonfiction and fiction, for its ability to convey complex theoretical and philosophical ideas in forms that are easily accessible. Lightman’s fiction often toys with concepts such as time and memory, with the ultimate goal of illustrating underlying assumptions of human motivation and identity.
Einstein’s Dreams became a bestseller and was translated into thirty different languages. Critics enjoyed the fantastic elements of the novel, in which thirty chapters envision different time/space contingencies that lead to various human lifestyles. The science in the stories is only effective, say reviewers, because of the serious statements about humanity that underlie the fantasy. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times explains, ”The dreams… have little to do, for the lay reader any-way, with the technicalities of quantum theory and everything to do with the human condition and its time-ridden existence.” He continues, ”By turns whimsical and meditative, playful and provocative, Einstein’s Dreams pulls the reader into a dream world like a powerful magnet.” Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Book Review concurs, citing Lightman’s statements about human nature as more profound than his use of science. He writes, ”Lightman has done much more than make relativity visible by seeding it with human stories. He makes his human stories more deeply visible by seeding them with relativity.”
- Eder, Richard. ”Time and Time Again.” Los Angeles Book Review (January 10, 1993): 3, 9.
- Harville, Jack. ”Dark Humor Helps Leaven Stark Horror in Diagnosis.” Charlotte Observer (November 26, 2000): F6.
- Interview with Alan Lightman. Physics Today (February 1997).
- Interview with Alan Lightman. Washington Post Book World (April 23, 2000).
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Imagining How Time Might Behave Differently.” New York Times (January 5, 1993): 16.
- Seaman, Donna. Review of Livingwith the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery. Booklist (December 2003): 638.
- Shires, Nancy P. Review of The Best American Essays 2000. Library Journal (October 1, 2000): 94.
- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Online. MIT Professor: Alan Lightman. Retrieved November 9, 2008, from http://www.mit.edu/~humanistic/ faculty/lightman.html.
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