The Physicist as Novelist

Scientist and artist -Alan Lightman remembers when the sense of scientific creativity almost lifted him by the hair and “pulled him out of the water.” He recalled the experience while lecturing an overflow crowd at the Academy on March 22, 2005:


I was working on my first big project as a graduate student. I had been stuck on a problem for almost six months. Something was wrong with my equations and I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

Then one morning I awoke at 5 a.m. and had this sense of excitement. Something in my head was working on this problem in a way I hadn’t seen before. Something was gripping me forward and pulling me into this analysis. The physical sensation was that my head was being lifted off my shoulders. I had no sense of self. The closest analogy I can give is if you’re sailing in a round-bottomed boat. Every once in awhile, if the wind is strong enough, it will pull the boat right up out of the water so you go skimming across it like a stone. It’s called ‘planing’ [like an airplane]. That’s what it felt like. I had been lifted out of my body and was planing across the surface.

I sat down and began to work on the problem. I felt very powerful. I knew I was figuring out something that no one had ever figured out before. I sat in my room amidst all those crumpled up pieces of paper and worked. I had this sense of the inevitable. I knew I was going to find the solution. When I finally finished, I walked out of the room and looked at the clock on the wall. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Lightman believes that this type of creativity exists in both the sciences and the arts. The artist and the scientist are one in the same. They both venture into unknown realms, with only a sense of order to guide them.

He is well qualified to make the argument. Divided between an appreciation of poetry and science since his youth, he has become both a successful physicist and a successful novelist. Educated at Princeton and Caltech, he taught physics and astronomy at Harvard and MIT for two decades. Then, turning to writing, he penned four novels: Einstein’s Dreams, an international bestseller, Good Benito, Reunion, and Diagnosis, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. In between, he has become a successful science writer for Nature, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. He now teaches humanities at MIT.

“He’s the only person I know who has taught both physics and humanities at MIT,” said Rashid Shaikh, the Academy’s director of programs. “I’ve taught at MIT and I know how difficult that is.”

A divided childhood

“Ever since I was a young boy, my passion has been divided between science and art,” Lightman began. “I wrote poems about death, my loneliness, my admiration for plum-colored skies and my unrequited love for fourteen-year-old girls—when I was fourteen.”

Lightman was mesmerized by the sound and movement of words. “Words could be sudden, like ‘jolt,’ or slow, like ‘meandering.’ They could be sharp or smooth, cool silvery, prickly to touch, blaring like a trumpet, fluid, or pitter-pattered in rhythm. By magic, they could create scenes and emotions.”

When his grandfather died, he buried his grief in writing a poem, which he showed to his grandmother a month later. “She cradled my face in her veined hands and said, ‘It’s beautiful,'” he recounted. “Then she began weeping.” How could marks on a white sheet of paper contain so much power and force?

“She cradled my face in her hands and said, ‘It’s beautiful.'”

Between poems, Lightman conducted scientific experiments. “I built a cramped little laboratory out of a storage closet,” he said. “In my homemade alchemist’s den I hoarded resistors and capacitors, coils of wire, batteries, switches, photoelectric cells, magnets, Petri dishes, lovely glass flasks, and dangerous chemicals I secretly ordered from unsuspecting supply stories.” At thirteen, he built a remote-control device that activated the lights in various rooms of his house, amazing his three younger brothers. After seeing Frankenstein, the movie, he built a spark-generating induction coil, requiring tedious weeks upon weeks of winding a mile’s length of wire around an iron core.

Companion in invention

Lightman was not alone in his scientific investigations. “John was my best friend in high school, a year older and skinny as a strand of 30-guage wire,” he said. John didn’t share his interest in poetry. He was all practicality. “He was a genius with his hands,” said Lightman. “Patching together odds and ends, he could build anything. He never saved directions, he never drew up schematic diagrams, and his wiring wandered drunkenly around the circuit board, but he had the magic touch and when he fiddled cross-legged in his room, the transistors hummed. His inventions were not pretty but they worked, often better than mine.”

Weekends, they would lie around Lightman’s room, bored, listening to Bob Dylan records, reading back issues of Popular Science. Lazily, they perused diagrams of wrought-iron furniture with rivets instead of welded joints, circuits for fluorescent lamps and voice-activated tape recorders, and one-man flying machines made from plastic bleach bottles. “We undertook ritual expeditions to Clark and Fay’s, the best-stocked hardware store in Memphis,” Lightman recalls. “There we squandered whole Saturdays adrift in aisles of copper wire, socket wrenches, diodes, oddly shaped metallic brackets that had no immediate use but which we purchased anyway. It was our home away from home, our temple. We spoke to each other in whispers.”

“The hardware store was our temple. We spoke in whispers.”

One of Lightman’s most vivid memories was his attempt to launch a homemade rocket after the Russians sent Sputnik into space in 1957. “I was entranced by the idea of a blast-off, the uncoiling plume of smoke, the silvery body lit by the sun, the huge acceleration, the beautiful arc of the trajectory into the sky. By fourteen I was experimenting with my own rocket fuels.” What seemed best was a mixture of powdered charcoal and zinc, sulfur and potassium nitrate. For the ignition he used a Brownie flashbulb embedded with the fuel chamber.

Choosing aesthetics over practicality

At dawn one Sunday morning he assembled his younger brothers and several other friends on a neighboring golf course. “John didn’t see anything useful in rockets so he stayed in bed. From my control center 100 feet away I called out the countdown. With a flash and a whoosh, the rocket shot from its pad. But after rising only a few hundred feet, it did a sickening swerve, spun out of control, and crashed.” With sudden clarity, he remembered he had rejected rivets for the fins as too ugly. Instead he had glued them on. “How had I ever thought mere glue could withstand the heat and aerodynamic force?” he wonders now. “I had sacrificed reality for aesthetics.” John would have been horrified.

Only later did he learn that many other scientists had made the same mistake. “Aristotle thought the planets moved in circles because it was the perfect geometric shape,” said Lightman. When it became clear that the planets zigzagged in their paths, scientists added circles to the circles. Only the careful observations of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler proved the planets moved in ellipses, not circles.

“I saved my math problems like bites of chocolate.”

Occasionally defeated by reality, Lightman found he could always find fulfillment in mathematics. “I loved math,” he recalled. When the teacher assigned homework most children would groan but he would relish it. “I saved my math problems for last, like bites of chocolate after a long and dutiful meal of Latin and world history,” he said. “I loved drawing diagrams. I loved finding the inexorable and irrefutable relation between lines, angles, and curves. In algebra, I loved letting x’s and y’s stand for the nickels in a jar or the height of a building, then solving by one logical step after another. I loved the logic, the precision, the certainty. With mathematics you were guaranteed an answer as clean and crisp as a new $20 bill. And when you found the answer, no one could argue with you.”

Mathematics contrasted strongly with the world of people. “People confused me,” he recalls. “My mother said things that were cruel, even though she loved me. Blanch, who worked for us, deserted her husband, then talked about him with affection for 20 years. How does one deal with these things? After living now for 20 years in the community of scientists and artists, I think I have some answers.”

What’s in a name?

Lightman believes the distinction between artists and scientists lies in the way they use names. “Roughly speaking, the scientist tries to name things while the artist tries to avoid naming things. Consider the word ‘electron,'” he said. “As far as we know, all the zillions of electrons in the universe are the same. To a physicist, they are summarized by the Dirac Equation. Everything about electrons and their anti-particles that zip in and out of existence in a vacuum is all known by the Dirac Equation. For scientists there is a great feeling of control and power in being able to name things in this way.

“The objects the novelist deals with cannot be named,” he continued. “Words like ‘love.’ There are a thousand different kinds of love. There is the love of a mother who writes you every day in summer camp. There is the love of a mother who slaps you when you come home drunk. There is the love of making love to a person. There is the love of a friend who calls you up when you’ve broken up with a spouse. Whatever kind of love it may be, it must be shown to the reader, not named. If love is shown, then each reader will experience it differently, in her own way.”

In science there is one answer. Every reader reads a novel in her own way.

The novelist doesn’t want to eliminate these differences; he wants to keep them. “In a sense, a novel is not completed until a reader reads it,” he said. “And every reader reads it in a completely different way over time. I once went to a conference of the Modern Language Association where one professor said the ideal scientific text was a book you only had to read once because it was so clear you would understand it. The ideal literary text, on the other hand, was a book you would read over and over because it would change each time you read it. That’s the difference between science and literature.”

Who makes things up?

Despite these differences, though, Lightman finds the scientist and artist have common ground. “The folklore is that novelists make everything up and physicists make nothing up,” he said. “Both folklores are false. Creative imagination and invention are the hallmarks of good scientists. And novelists must conform to a certain body of recognized truth about human nature, or readers will not accept what they are saying.”

In his most recent book, A Sense of the Mysterious, Lightman speculates that scientists do their best work while they are young, while novelists must wait until they mature before hitting their stride. “The limber years for scientists, as for athletes, generally come at a young age,” he writes in the chapter, “A Scientist Dying Young,” originally penned in 1984. “Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when he discovered the law of gravity. Albert Einstein was twenty-six when he formulated special relativity and James Clerk Maxwell had polished off electromagnetic theory and retired to the country by thirty-five,” writes Lightman. “When I recently hit thirty-five myself, I went through the unpleasant but irresistible exercise of summing up my career in physics. By this age, or another few years, the most creative achievements are finished and visible. You’ve either got the stuff and used it or you haven’t. In my own case, I conduced my work was respectable but not brilliant.

“Stay in science while you’re young, then write.”

Lightman said he’s had his moments. He knows what it feels like to unravel a mystery no one has understood before, sitting alone at his desk with only pencil and paper and wondering how it happened. “It is the creative element of my profession that sets me on fire,” he concluded.

Still, when Lightman realized that his work would not produce groundbreaking discoveries, he decided to change course and lend his creativity to the more complex field of writing. He has done it well. “I’d almost recommend it as a career path for scientists,” he said after the lecture. “Stay in science while you’re young and passionate and then settle into writing as you mature.”

“What happened to John?” asked Shaikh at the end of the program—a question that was probably on more than a few people’s minds.

“He went to California and did so well in a tech company that he was recently able to retire,” said Lightman. Another way to spend your mature years.

Alan Lightman, PhD
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
web site | publications

Alan Lightman is adjunct professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a novelist, essayist, physicist, and lecturer, Lightman is committed to making science accessible and understandable to a wide audience. His writings cover a range of topics dealing with science and the humanities, particularly the relationship between science, art, and literature. Lightman’s short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous popular magazines and publications, including Discover, Harper’s, Nature, and The New Yorker. He is the author of four novels, including the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, which was runner-up for the 1994 PEN New England/Boston Globe Winship Award, has been translated into 30 languages, and is the basis for more than two dozen independent theatrical and musical productions. In addition to his novels, Lightman is the author of several science books, drawing on his research in the areas of gravitational theory, accretion disks, stellar dynamics, radiative processes, and relativistic plasmas.

Lightman holds a PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology, and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Bowdoin College. He served a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University before becoming assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard University and research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 1989 Lightman joined the faculty of MIT, and in 1995 was appointed John E. Burchard professor of humanities, a position he resigned in 2001 to allow more time for his writing. For his contributions to physics, Lightman was elected fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, both in 1989. In 1996 he was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and that same year, was recipient of the American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award for linking science to the humanities.

-Reported ByWilliam Tucker is a writer for The American Enterprise. – Posted Sep 9, 2005


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