Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.
Dr. Alan Lightman is a man who wears many hats and he wears them all very well. A theoretical physicist who did research on black holes and the author of some 18 books of fiction and nonfiction, Lightman moves fluently from science to art and back again. For example, his 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams, puts the readers inside Albert Einstein’s mind as he imagines many possible worlds as he discovers the theory of relativity. Adapted into dozens of plays and musicals it is a brilliant and lyrical example of the connections between art and science. While his 2018 book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, is an elegant and moving collection of essays that explores our longing for certainty and permanence in light of the modern scientific view that all things in the physical world are uncertain and impermanent. This is an examination that Alan Lightman continues as the host and co-writer of the new PBS series “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.” Directed by Geoffrey Haines- Stiles, this visually-rich series with a haunting score by cellist Zoe Keating, brings an impressive group of scientists, philosophers, and faith leaders—two Nobel laureates, two MacArthur geniuses, the Dalai Lama—in conversation with Alan as they ponder questions of meaning. It’s a series that very much focuses on the journey and on the questions and observations made along the way. It is thought-provoking and artistically rewarding film-making that visually captures complicated scientific and philosophical inquiry. I spoke with Dr. Alan Lightman recently— while he was in Cambodia working with the not-for-profit he founded, the Harpswell Foundation, so you may occasionally hear the sounds of Phnom Penh in the background. I asked him to describe the event that kicked off this whole exploration that began one night on a boat in Maine.
Alan Lightman: My wife is a painter, and she and I have been very privileged and fortunate to live on a small island in Maine in the summertime. And there are no ferries or bridges to the island, so each person has their own boat. And one night, I was coming back to our place on the island, very late after midnight. It was quiet and the stars were blazing in the sky. And I decided to turn off the engine of the boat and it got very quiet. Then I turned off the running lights for the boat, and it got even darker. And I lay down in the bottom of the boat and just looked up. And after a while, I felt like I was falling into infinity. I felt like I was becoming part of the stars, like I was merging with something much larger than myself. And I lost all sense of my body, I lost sense of where I was and I lost sense of time, and it was a transcendent experience. I think that most of us have had experiences like that, maybe not that particular experience, but experiences where we feel connected to something much larger than ourselves. So I wondered, how do we reconcile an experience like that with a materialist, scientific view of the world? And so that was really the beginning of my journey.
Jo Reed: And you’ve documented that journey beautifully through your books, particularly, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. Why the decision to bring it to television as a series?
Alan Lightman: Good question. I was not planning on bringing this to television, and had no plans to ever have a television program based on my books. About three and a half years ago, the director and producer, Geoffrey Haines-Stiles-- who was one of the senior producers of a Carl Sagan's original "Cosmos" series in the 1980s, and has produced many other wonderful science documentaries-- contacted me and said that he was interested in possibly doing a television program based on my book "Searching for Stars" which he had recently read. And I said, "Well, if it's going to be all science, I'll respectfully decline. But if you can also-- if we can also explore the philosophical, ethical and even spiritual sides of science, which the book does, then I would be interested." And so that's how it started.
Jo Reed: And in Searching you do speak with scientists, philosophers, ethicists, and religious leaders. What are some of the questions you explore together?
Alan Lightman: One of the questions that we explore is, how do we fit into the grand scheme of things? We're a collection of atoms and molecules, each one of us, a special collection of course, and we have a limited lifespan of 100 years, which is nothing in the unfolding of the universe. We live on an ordinary planet, which is in an ordinary solar system, which is on the edge of a galaxy of 100 billion stars, and then there are billions of other galaxies. So it's a pretty big place out there, both in time and space, and how do we fit into that scheme? Another question that we explore is, if we're all material, atoms and molecules are just something that we argue for, how is it that these complex human experiences that we have-- like falling in love, or feeling connected to things larger than ourselves, or our awe at observing a sunset, our appreciation of beauty-- how do all of those complex human experiences arise from atoms and molecules? Because most scientists, I think probably all, believe that all of our mental experiences come from the brain and the brain is made out of neurons, which are made out of atoms and molecules. So how do you get all of this fabulous human experience from atoms and molecules? Why do we long for permanence, when everything around tells us that the universe is impermanent? So those are some of the big questions that we explore in the series.
Jo Reed: Well Alan, you're both a physicist and a writer, both a fiction and nonfiction. So scientist as well as an artist, and in my mind, actually kind of the perfect question-- the perfect person to be probing this. Can you just tell us a little bit about your background. When you were a kid, were you drawn to both art as well as science?
Alan Lightman: I was. I built rockets and remote control devices, and I also wrote poetry and short stories. Looking back on my childhood, I realize now that I had two different groups of friends. I had friends who were the science types. Those are the friends who love their math homework. And then I had artistic friends, who were editors of the school magazine. And I really loved being part of both groups of friends and never thought twice about being members of two different groups of people. I think that my observation-- I'm not a child psychologist, but my observation is that most children have an interest in both the sciences and the arts, even if they don't know what those disciplines mean, that they have a curiosity about understanding how the world works. They also like to chant and sing songs and a natural affinity for rhythms and for painting and drawing. And I think that, unfortunately for many children, their parents and teachers and friends steer them in one direction or the other. It's easier to get through life if you're either the scientific type, the deliberate rational type, or if you're more the artistic type, the spontaneous, more imaginative type. And it's just easier to get through life, at least through the institutions that we've created, if you're either the artist type or the scientific type. But I was fortunate to be able to navigate between those two forces and make a life in both the science and the arts.
Jo Reed: Well, I think both disciplines are seen as oppositional in some way, which I disagree with.
Alan Lightman: Me too.
Jo Reed: First of all. And I'm curious, as someone who has done both, if you can talk about the creative process unfolds in both and how they're similar. I understand how they're different, but they're also similar, and if you could tease that out for us a bit.
Alan Lightman: My experience is, there are many similarities in the creative process, both scientific creation and artistic creation. When I am being creative, and either working on a scientific problem or trying to put together a dialog for a character in a novel, I lose sense of myself, just as I was describing the situation when I was lying down in the bottom of the boat in Maine and looking up at the stars. I lose sense of my body. I lose sense of time, and I'm just in this world of creation. And I think that another similarity between the sciences and the arts is that both scientists and artists appreciate beauty. It's not exactly the same beauty, but there's some things that overlap. The appreciation of simplicity, which I think is part of our aesthetic of beauty. The appreciation of wholeness, the appreciation of inevitability. We've all heard symphonies or seen paintings where we think that not a single note or stroke could be changed. There's an inevitability about it, and there's an inevitability about Einstein's theory of gravity that you couldn't change one thing without the theory falling apart. So those are some of the similarities. But the sensation of creation, beyond the aesthetic, the sensation is the same when we're in that creative space.
Jo Reed: I find that very interesting. My ex-husband is a mathematician turned computer scientist and one word he often used was elegant or elegance. A calculation was elegant, or conversely, it was inelegant—which meant even if the calculation was correct, if the process was clunky, it was inelegant and that actually pained him.
Alan Lightman: Yes. I think elegance is another similarity. The appreciation of elegance. And interestingly enough, many scientists, and especially the greatest ones, when they're searching for new theories, they are guided by an aesthetic of elegance and simplicity. When Einstein discovered his theory of relativity of time and space-- the first experiments done to test this theory disagreed with the theory, and Einstein would not accept the results of the experiments. He said that the theory is too beautiful not to be true. And then a few years later, it was found that the experiments were wrong, not the theory. Of course, sometimes our ideas of aesthetics and science lead us astray, but the history of science mainly is a story of the search for elegance in nature.
Jo Reed: Scientists obviously rely on experimentation.
Alan Lightman: Of course.
Jo Reed: But they also use their imagination.
Alan Lightman: Yes.
Jo Reed: And in the same way, artists use their imagination, but they also have to know the craft of their art, the technique, in order to convey that imagination.
Alan Lightman: Yes, totally agree.
Jo Reed: You focused on science in graduate school, although you kept on writing. And you later observed that there were at least a few scientists who later became writers, but you knew no writers who became scientists, and that kind of accounted for that concentration in your life. But I also wonder, because there seem to be many scientists who do their best work when they're young, whereas in the arts, somehow you need that experience to help you really get better.
Alan Lightman: Yes.
Jo Reed: Which is not to say there are not young artists who are brilliant, but experience adds depth to the art.
Alan Lightman: That's true, what you just said, I believe. Science seems to be a young person's game. It seems that you need to have a certain limberness of mind, an ability to challenge authority. And if you look at the Nobel Prize winners, which is one measure of scientific greatness, not the only one. If you look at the ages of the people at the time that they did their work-- not necessarily the time that they won the prize, but the time that they did the work, you'll find that they're very young. And physics is usually in their 20s, and other sciences might be in their 30s. Whereas, as you said, in the arts, experience with life, especially if you're a novelist for example, experience with life enhances your creative powers. So science is a young person's game and that's why, when I was in my early 20s, I decided to focus mainly on science, but I did not give up my writing. I continued writing, but I just did it on the weekends and evenings until I was in my early 40s, and I realized that my powers as a scientist were beginning to decline. And that's when I began putting much more of my effort into my writing.
Jo Reed: Everything in the universe is connected and we really are the stuff that stars are made off, and we know this from science. And we know our galaxy is small, the earth is small, and we are very small on this little planet. But as we try to pull meaning out of this, that really isn't what scientists do. They're not the meaning makers. That's what artists and philosophers and spiritual leaders do.
Alan Lightman: Yes.
Jo Reed: And that's why you brought them into this conversation in this series.
Alan Lightman: Yes, agreed. That being said, and I totally agree with you, scientists often make discoveries that are useful for the philosophers and faith leaders--
Jo Reed: Oh yeah,
Alan Lightman: -- and ethicists, in finding meaning. So even though I don't think scientists themselves are particularly qualified to find meaning, the work that they do is part of our understanding of the world and our place in it.
Jo Reed: Absolutely. You can't charge anyone to do everything.
Alan Lightman: Yes.
Jo Reed: We're all part of a large conversation, I think.
Alan Lightman: Yeah, that's right.
Jo Reed: Well, one question that you posed and you discussed is, why do we humans long for permanence against all evidence presented by nature? And this informs so many aspects of all our lives, and I think it particularly drives the artistic impulse.
Alan Lightman: Well, I think that one of the greatest forces of human existence is awareness of our mortality. I think it comes into so many things. There was a whole book written by a philosopher and sociologist named Ernest Becker, I think "The Denial of Death," is the name of the book. And he argues that almost all of our institutions, our civilization, our science, our art, our buildings, all of it is an attempt to postpone our imminent death. There's a scene at the end of the series, "Searching," the very last scene where I'm standing on the top of a mountain that's 12,000 feet up. It's called Jungfraujoch. It's in Switzerland. And there are these very, very high mountains. And I look very, very small. I think one of the brilliant ideas of Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, the director, was to find this location and its metaphorical meaning. So I'm standing at the top of this mountain, and I look very, very small. But as you see where I'm standing, it's on a platform that is an astronomical observatory that has a dome, and that sort of represents that even though we are very, very small with our limited lifetimes and our mortality, that we are elevated somehow by our quest to understand the world, our search for meaning. And all of that is represented visually. That's one thing I learned from working with Geoff on this series, that visual images can tell stories by themselves. And all of that, even if I didn't say a word while I'm standing on this platform, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, this tiny speck of me, even if I didn't say a word, the scene would convey the whole story, in a sense.
Jo Reed: Oh, I think he gives us visuals in that series that really made visible the questions that you were exploring. I mean, he was just marvelous at bringing the metaphors that you used to life.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. The cinematography is just fabulous, and I can say that without bragging, because none of that is due to me. It's all due to Geoffrey Haines-Stiles and the camera crew that he assembled. Many camera crews, because it went to many different places in the world. But the camera crews and Geoff's vision produced all of those wonderful images.
Jo Reed: And of course, I couldn't help but think the artistry of filmmaking is elucidating really complicated scientific inquiry and also on a practical level: that two minutes of finished tape is the result of how many hours of work that we never see?
Alan Lightman: Right. And I can tell you, it was damn cold on that mountaintop.
Jo Reed: Oh my god, you could hardly articulate. I mean, I felt--
Alan Lightman: I could hardly-- yeah.
Jo Reed: I felt very bad for you.
Alan Lightman: I could hardly talk. My lips felt like they were frozen, and-- because it was not only, you know, near zero degrees, but there was a strong wind blowing. And although I put on lots of clothes, I still was shivering. At one point after, in post-production, we were thinking of this very high tech, essentially dubbing the voice. And we finally decided no, maybe we should let the viewers understand that I'm really, really cold, with the muffled words coming out.
Jo Reed: This viewer did, and felt for you. I mean, it was a glorious shot, but whoa!
Alan Lightman: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And conversely, I think it's close to the end of the first episode, you film underground. You travel to Montignac, and film in the prehistoric caves there.
Alan Lightman: Well, it was in this little town called Les Eyzies, where some of the prehistoric caves of France are located, and there are paintings on the walls there that go back twenty or thirty thousand years. And in addition to these beautiful paintings, there are at least one very unusual symbol. And you don't know exactly what this symbol means, but you know that, somehow, it represents the search for meaning. And the purpose of that scene, I think, and that whole segment, was to show that we human beings have been searching for meaning for a very long time. Of course, we have more advanced tools today. We have particle accelerators and earth-orbiting telescopes, but we're still searching for meaning, like we were there. And on the visuals-- we were speaking of visuals, a moment ago-- there's a bridge in this little town of Les Eyzies, and a river underneath it. And there was a moment where there was a mist hanging over the river, and trees overhanging the river, and the whole scene looked like a Monet painting. And Geoff got one of our camera people to send a camera flying over the river, and caught it on film.
Jo Reed: It was beautiful. It's a beautiful, beautiful series, visually. It's great filmmaking.
Alan Lightman: Well, thank you, Jo.
Jo Reed: The content and the delivery -- it's a great marriage. You speak to the Dalai Lama about consciousness, and I read in the show notes, first of all, that was the first thing you shot, which had to have been daunting. I know it would've been for me.
Alan Lightman: Yes.
Jo Reed: But it was also an incredibly interesting conversation. Can you just tell me about that whole experience?
Alan Lightman: Well, we couldn't actually get to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama was, because COVID was raging in India at the time, so the best we could do was to have a very high-tech Zoom between him and me. And there were two cameras-- local camera crews-- with him, in his private chapel in Dharamsala, and then I went to a Buddhist Tibetan temple in New Jersey. But because of the time difference, it was about midnight, my time. I think this was in July, when we filmed it-- it was boiling hot, and I thought, "If I'm speaking to the Dalai Lama, I should wear a jacket." Well, I was sweating profusely. We had a lot of camera lights to light me up, and I had to wear this jacket, and it was boiling hot, and I was really sweating buckets. So, that's sort of the context for this conversation with him. And I had a very big screen in front of me, which showed his face in great detail, and he had a screen in front of him, which showed me. And as soon as he came on, he gave me the biggest smile, and that was worth everything.
Jo Reed: You know, I was so struck by what he said about consciousness: that it precedes life, it precedes the universe.
Alan Lightman: Yes. I did ask him-- because we had just finished talking about whether an advanced android or computer could be conscious, and he said, "Absolutely not." And then I asked him whether consciousness requires life, because astronomers and physicists believe that, in 100 billion years or so, there won't be any life left in our universe, after all the stars burn out. Not only life like us, but life of any kind, we think, will not exist, at some point in the distant future. And I asked him whether you need life for consciousness, and he said no, that consciousness is not physical. And then he went on to say what you just said: that consciousness has no beginning and no end, that it's always there. Which is a pretty amazing statement. I have enormous respect and admiration for His Holiness. I don't share that view, but I think that many people do.
Jo Reed: I don't know if I do, but I know I like thinking about it as a possibility.
Alan Lightman: Yes.
Jo Reed: I like living inside of questions. I mean, I know a lot of people find that uncomfortable, but I'm lucky. I really am happy inside of a question.
Alan Lightman: Yes, and you're happy not knowing the answer, I guess, as well.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I am.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, you know, I think that many scientists are happiest when there's a puzzle, and we yet-- we don't yet understand the answer. I think that's when science is the most exciting. And it may be true for the arts, as well. I know-- and I can only speak as an artist from novel-writing, which is as close as I can get to the arts, but when I'm struggling to understand a character, and there might be a single line of dialogue that I'm looking for, that can bring the character to life, that's when it's most interesting to me, most exciting.
Jo Reed: One of the most interesting segments in the show is when you ask a number of scientists: If they could push a button and get an answer to the biggest questions about the origin of consciousness, would they?
Alan Lightman: I wanted to talk to some leading scientists about their experiences with discovery. What did they find most rewarding? First, I returned to the McGovern Institute of brain research at MIT, which is headed by Robert Desimone. I asked him whether if he could push a button and get an answer to the biggest questions about the origins of consciousness, would you push the button?
Robert Desimone: Darn right, I would! (laughs)
Alan Lightman: Fabiola Giamatti, is now director general of CERN, the giant particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland. She worked on the discovery of the Higgs boson on a fundamental subatomic particle, would she push the button to learn the final laws of physics?
Fabiola Giamatti: I think, no, I would not push the button because I think what is important is not only the ultimate goal. I think equally fascinating is the path that brings us there.
Alan Lightman: Rai Weiss is a Nobel Laureate, for his four decades of work to detect gravitational waves, and achievements so difficult that even Albert Einstein thought it impossible. Would you push the button?
Rai Weiss : Of course, I would want to find out. Of course, I push that button.
Alan Lightman: Nergis Mavalvala is an immigrant from Pakistan. She's a MacArthur Genius. And the first woman to be Dean of Science at MIT. Nergis has been a major contributor to building the instruments that detected gravitational waves. Push the button?
Nergis Mavalvala: Absolutely not. I would break the button because part of the journey is peeling back the layers to see what's down there. I may, you know, just give it a tiny tap just to see what the next thing is…
Jo Reed: And I understand this was a very small sample size. We only saw the answer of four scientists-- two men, two women. The men said, yes, they would push that button, <laughs> without hesitation, and the women said, "No." <laughs>
Alan Lightman: I think that if you asked a larger range of people, that you would've gotten-- the gender association would've disappeared.
Jo Reed: I wondered about that. But their responses were so fascinating. So, let me ask you: would you push that button?
Alan Lightman: I would not push the button. I think that the journey of discovery is what drives our creativity. It stimulates us. I think, if we had all the answers, that it would probably squash our voyage, our journey. It would squash something of our creative impulse, I believe. So, I would not push the button.
Jo Reed: The series is also memorable because of its score, which was composed and performed by cellist Zoe Keating. How did you all work together? How and when did she come into the process?
Alan Lightman: Well, I can't praise her enough, just as I can't praise the director enough. Geoff knew Zoe Keating. He knew her music, I should say, and very much admired it. And we contacted her, and we had a meeting with her at a very early stage, and discussed the series with her, the ideas. We had done no filming at that point, I believe, and asked her if she would be interested, and she was. And so, at different points along the way, we sent her some of our early clips, before we had put everything together, and she composed, I think, first some of the theme music, some of the title music. We told her the sort of different plays of ideas that we had in the series, and some of the tension, the dramatic tensions, and all of that was grist for the mill for her. And she did send us drafts of things along the way, and there was a certain amount of back-and-forth where, if something didn't seem to fit quite right for us, we would send it back to her. Of course, you don't want to interfere with another working artist too much. You don't want to hem them in, so we wanted to make sure that we were not interfering or limiting her own creative process. But one of the most interesting things for me-- I mean, as a writer, I've always worked in isolation. You know, I like to be in a room that's very quiet. I only get up, rarely, to eat meals. I don't have-- I even-- don't even have an open window. I like serenity and quiet and isolation. So, I'm like a soloist. But working on this film, I became a member of a large orchestra, with a musician, Zoe Keating; a director, Geoff Haines-Stiles; and many other very talented and creative people, who are all working together to make this series. And that was a new experience for me: just the collaborative nature of making a film.
Jo Reed: Well, there is a wonderful moment where you take some time to very closely observe, with a microscope, all the critters in just one square inch of soil. And it's a beautiful moment, and I thought she scored it perfectly.
Alan Lightman: Yeah.
Jo Reed: But I also thought it was a really important moment that explores what it means to stop, and observe, and be in the moment.
Alan Lightman: Yes, because I think that that moment came after a cosmological discussion, where we're talking about billions of years in time, and billions of light years in distance. And, the series is about our search for meaning. Is meaning about things that last? But, of course, nothing lasts. We sort of hypothesize that meaning exists in the moment, and, in the world that we live in today, this fast-paced world, we're all rushing around from one appointment to the next. We look at our smartphones every five minutes, and we rarely give ourselves the permission and opportunity to just stop and live in the moment, just pay attention to what's happening in the moment. There's a Buddhist concept called mindfulness, which is simply being present. And we try to convey that in that scene with the magnifying glass, looking at the one square inch. We're just trying to be in the moment, and be present.
Jo Reed: You went to the LIGO Lab, which is a large-scale physics observatory designed to detect gravitational waves, and it's 40 years in the making. And the scientist working on it for all those years, Rai Weiss, explained how he kept at it.
Alan Lightman: Yes. I did ask Rai what kept him going for 40 years, and he said, "The fun of it," basically; that it was fun. This is another example of the quest being as important as the answer; that what kept him going, and other people going-- I mean, graduate students came and went over the 40-year period, not seeing the results of the final detection, but each year, there was an advance in the equipment. The equipment got better and better and better and better, until finally it was sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves, which are very weak. And along the way, all of these improvements and technological advances were made, that continue to provide excitement-- and just plain old fun-- to people like Rai Weiss. So, that's what kept him going.
Jo Reed: I loved that section of the series. The look on his face-- it's exactly the look I think we all want to have, when we think about our life's work.
Alan Lightman: One of the things that we were hoping to do in this series is to convey the passion that scientists have for their work. And, of course, artists and philosophers and other creative people have passion, as well. But we wanted to show how excited scientists are about their work; the passion. Most scientists, they're not doing what they're doing to make a car that goes faster, or create a better washing machine. They're doing it because they're learning something new about the way the world works, and the trip is just so thrilling.
Jo Reed: And that is a great place to leave it. Alan Lightman, thank you and thank you for giving me your time. It's ten thirty at night for you right now, so thank you. I know it's the end of a long day.
Alan Lightman: Well, I very much appreciate being on your podcast, Jo. Thank you for inviting me.
Jo Reed: You're very welcome, and thank you.
That was physicist and writer Dr. Alan Lightman. He’s the host and co-writer of the new PBS series “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.” You can watch the series on your local PBS station or online at searchingformeaning.org where you can also find background on the people, places and ideas in Searching, as well as a forum so you can continue to explore these ideas with other viewers. We’ll have a link in our shownotes.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Author and MIT physicist Dr. Alan Lightman is the co-writer and host of the new PBS series Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science. In this podcast, Dr. Lightman discusses the experience that led to him to write the book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine; why he agreed to develop the book into a series; and his explorations with scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders around the question, How do we find meaning in an age of science? He also discusses his own dual trajectory—a student who won both science awards and poetry prizes, a man who has had two successful careers as a distinguished physicist and an accomplished novelist (his bestselling novel Einstein’s Dreams puts the readers inside Albert Einstein’s mind imagining possible worlds as he discovers the theory of relativity—it's been adapted into dozens of plays and musicals). He also talks about the similarities between scientific and artistic creativity, the aesthetics that can drive scientific inquiry, the role of art as a meaning-maker, and the artistry and collaboration involved in making the series Searching.
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