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. The book consists of 20 tightly composed essays on a variety of topics (stars, atoms, truth, transcendence, death, certainty, origins and so on) with a single narrative thread running through them: the search for something deeper in the materialist worldview of the scientist.
Take death. “For a materialist,” Lightman writes, “death is the name that we give to a collection of atoms that once had the special arrangement of a functioning neuronal network and now no longer does so.” But this is unsatisfying. Of his parents, Lightman wonders: “Where are they now, my deceased mother and father? I know the materialist explanation, but that does nothing to relieve my longing for them, or the impossible truth that they do not exist.” Lightman doesn’t fear death. “Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of life. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain on Lute Island.”
Lute Island, Maine, is where Lightman’s journey begins. On a clear moonless night in a tiny motorboat on his way to this summer retreat, sensing something special about the moment, he turned off the running lights and engine, lay down on his back to take in the ocean of stars, and let himself go. “The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before.” Mystics and meditators aim for this sense of oneness with the universe, but Lightman’s just happened. “I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.” When he returned to an awareness of his body and boat, he “had no idea how long I’d been lying there.”
What is a scientist to make of such mystical experiences? Lightman begins with absolutes, “ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred.” Absolutes “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives.” Absolutes go beyond science and are “rooted in personal experience, but they involve beliefs beyond that experience.” The problem, he admits, is that “the tenets of the absolutes” can’t be proved, “certainly not in the way that science has proven the existence of atoms,” so we are left with internal truths, those that are by definition out of the realm of science, to be understood solely through experience.
And then there’s faith. What Lightman calls the central doctrine of science — that “all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws hold true at every time and place in the universe” — is an article of faith because “it cannot be proved.” It “must simply be accepted.” In support of this, he cites no less a luminary than Albert Einstein, who “believed in a beautiful and mysterious order underlying the world.”