January 2008 Issue

pd spotlight

At the Crossroads of Science and Art

His career in physics is awe-inspiring all by itself. But science is only part of Dr. Alan Lightman’s story — wait until you learn about his literary achievements

BY Nancy Toth, MA CHRP
Manager, Professional Development & Manager, Human Resources


Editor’s Note: Much of the material for this column comes from Dr. Lightman’s websites, and The PEGG uses it with his permission.

In a November 2000 interview, Dr. Alan Lightman was questioned about what inspired his novel The Diagnosis. His answer was revealing: “For years I wanted to say something about the modern malaise, the absence of time we have to think about who we are. We have a loss of spirituality, without any time in our day to think.”

Dr. Lightman said he wanted readers to gain “an increased awareness of the way that we are living. The book raises questions, raises the level of consciousness.”

The theoretical physicist emphasized his intention “to make a difference in the world with my writing, to change the world a little.”

Perhaps he can change your world, too. Dr. Lightman is one of those rare presenters with the power to transform, and APEGGA is bringing him to the 2008 Annual Conference.

Many of you, I think, will want to register for his two Executive Track lectures in April, The Physicist as Novelist, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. We are allotting time for questions and answers, as well.

As both a distinguished physicist and an accomplished novelist, Dr. Lightman is one of a select few people who straddle the sciences and the humanities. In fact, he was the first professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities.

The New York Times praises Dr. Lightman as “a scientist in love with words, one who can write clearly and appealingly about his subject for a lay readership.” Lavin Agency, which represents Dr. Lightman, calls him “one of the greatest scientific interpreters of his generation.”

His essay In the Name of Love? was the first article about love and language published in Nature, the prestigious international science journal. And his The First Law of Thermodynamics was the first-ever short story published in Physics Today.
He has lectured at more than 75 U.S. universities about the similarities and differences in the ways scientists and artists view the world.

Dr. Lightman’s lecture on art and science is a discussion on “the differences and similarities between the scientific and artistic endeavors, drawing upon his own unique experience as a member of both communities,” says his agency. “From his unique point of view, he explores different ways of knowing the world, different approaches to truth, and different patterns of creativity.”

Two Careers Weave Into One

When you read through Dr. Lightman’s biographical information, it’s almost as if he has two careers — one as luminary in literature and one as a scientist — that keep crisscrossing and enhancing each other. He is the embodiment of what he has to say.

Alan Lightman was born in Memphis in 1948. He received a bachelor of arts in physics from Princeton in 1970 and his PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974. He has three honorary degrees.

From 1974 to 1976, Dr. Lightman was a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Cornell. Heralding literary successes to come, he began publishing poetry in small literary magazines.

He was an assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard from 1976 to 1979, and then until 1989 he was a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In 1981 Dr. Lightman began publishing essays about science, the human side of science, and the “mind of science.” He added reviews and short fiction to publishing credits that soon included Smithsonian Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and Harvard Magazine.

He moved on to a career at MIT, where he’s been professor of science and writing, a senior lecturer in physics, and the John E. Burchard professor of humanities. He headed MIT’s writing and humanistic studies, helped create its communication requirement, and co-founded its graduate program in science writing.

Dr. Lightman resigned his chair in 2002 to make time for writing, becoming an adjunct professor at MIT. Then in 2004, Dr. Lightman co-founded the Catalyst Collaborative, a collaboration between the institute and the Underground Railway Theater of Boston.

In his scientific work, Dr. Lightman has made fundamental contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under conditions of extreme temperatures and densities. His research articles have appeared in The Physical Review, The Astrophysical Journal, Reviews of Modern Physics, Nature and other respected journals.

In Dr. Lightman’s much-acclaimed novel Einstein’s Dreams, he explores psychological perceptions of time. An international bestseller, Einstein’s Dreams has been translated into 30 languages. It has been used in numerous colleges, and more than two dozen independent theatrical and musical productions have been based on it.

There is, however, just one physical understanding of time — Einstein’s 1905 Theory of Relativity. In an enlightening lecture, Dr. Lightman gives a complete introduction to the theory, including examples and descriptions of experiments that underline and confirm it.

His collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious, was a finalist for the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award. Discover Magazine named his The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science one of the 10 best books on science of 2005.

The Diagnosis was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in fiction and a Barnes and Noble bestseller. Another of Dr. Lightman’s novels, Reunion, was also a bestseller, as well as a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. His latest novel, Ghost, “explores the delicate divide between the physical world and the spiritual world,” says his agency.

Believe it or not, there’s more. Other medals, awards, fellowships, credits and accolades fill Dr. Lightman’s resumé.

We’re excited and honoured to place Dr. Lightman — and many more great presenters — before APEGGA members in April. Please turn to the centre section of this edition of The PEGG to find out more about your conference.

On behalf of my department, seasons greetings to all PEGG readers. And we look forward to seeing you in Edmonton for the APEGGA Annual General Meeting and Annual Conference!