Alan Lightman

  • American physicist
  • Born November 28, 1948

Alan Paige Lightman is an American physicist, writer, and social entrepreneur. He has served on the faculties of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He is widely known as the author of the international bestseller Einstein's Dreams. Einstein's Dreams has been adapted into dozens of independent theatrical productions and is one of the most widely used "common books" on college campuses. Lightman's novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Music is, of course, a universal emotional experience, cutting across cultures and languages. I studied piano for ten years as a child and consider that experience one of the most valuable in my life.

I consider myself a spiritual atheist. I certainly believe there are forces bigger than ourselves, and that we should be searching, individually, for meaning in our lives. But I don't believe there's a supreme being, an intelligence that created everything.

I still will sit down at the piano and play when I am wrestling with something emotionally or just want to move into the musical world.

For me, consciousness is the most interesting unsolved problem of science, and, in fact, we may never know what it is about a particular arrangement of neurons that gives rise to consciousness. Our consciousness, like the air we breathe or like the passage of time, is central to our existence as intelligent beings.

We live in a highly polarized society. We need to try to understand each other in respectful ways. To that end, I believe that we should make room for both spiritual atheists and thinking believers.

I think e-mail is representative of our fast food mentality in the United States, where everything has gotten faster and faster, and we're required to respond to inputs more quickly with less time for thought and reflection. I believe that we need to slow down.

As both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science.

I've taken a philosophical position on e-mail. Although I think it's a wonderful communication technology, and it has a lot of good uses, it is abused quite a lot.

We're plugged in 24 hours a day now. We're all part of one big machine, whether we are conscious of that or not. And if we can't unplug from that machine, eventually we're going to become mindless.

I have too many friends who tell me that they spend the first hour of every morning going through their e-mail messages. I'd like to use my time more carefully.

Except for a God who sits down after the universe begins, all other gods conflict with the assumptions of science.

All writers have roots they draw from - travel, work, family. My roots are in science and it is fertile ground for fiction.

With a background in science I am extremely interested in the meeting ground of science, theology, and philosophy, especially the ethical questions at the border of science and theology.

I have for a long time loved fabulist, imaginative fiction, such as the writing of Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago, Michael Bulgakov, and Salman Rushdie. I also like the magic realist writers, such as Borges and Marquez, and feel that interesting truths can be learned about our world by exploring highly distorted worlds.

I have always loved magic realism as a form of writing. I have also been fascinated for a long time with the intersection of science and religion.

Novels aren't pedagogical instruments, or instructions in law or physics or any other discipline. A novel has to be an emotional experience, a trip of the imagination, and because science has raised so many issues that concern and affect humans, it's a good starting place for me.

As a scientist, I don't believe science will ever discover whether God exists. Nor do I believe religion will ever prove it.

If I were not a writer, I would spend more time doing the things that I am already doing, which include doing research in physics, teaching, and running a nonprofit organization with a mission to empower women in Cambodia.

I oppose any belief that contradicts experimental evidence as determined by the methods of science. All beliefs not in such contradiction may be considered as faith. Whether faith in a particular belief is beneficial or not is another matter.