MBL Falmouth Forum Presentation: An Accidental Universe


Alan Lightman

April 4, 2014, at 7:30 PM in Lillie Auditorium


Alan Lightman, physicist, writer, social entrepreneur, and professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Lightman’s newest book of essays, An Accidental Universe: the World You Thought You Knew  was released this spring, and will be available for purchase and signing at his Forum lecture. Emily Rapp of The Boston Globe recently wrote of An Accidental Universe, “Regardless of outstanding interests in science or religion, any reader will enjoy pondering, through well-organized and graceful prose, what can be objectively proven about the world in which we live and what remains a mystery. Can science prove the existence of God? Is this universe we inhabit the only one? Can a religious experience be scientifically proven? Lightman ponders these timeless, unanswerable questions using his training as both a scientist and a novelist, always careful to include historical and contemporary perspectives on each argument or idea. Lightman’s style is wonderfully readable; he writes about quantum physics and religious philosophical traditions with equal grace and enthusiasm.”

Alan Lightman began publishing essays about science, the human side of science, and the “mind of science” in 1981, beginning with Smithsonian and moving to Science 82, The New Yorker, and other magazines. Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages.  Einstein’s Dreams was also the March 1998 selection for National Public Radio‘s “Talk of the Nation” Book Club. The novel has been used in numerous colleges and universities, in many cases for university-wide adoptions in “common-book” programs, and is one of the mostly widely used texts in American colleges today. More than two dozen independent theatrical and musical productions have been based on Einstein’s Dreams. Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in fiction and has been adopted by high school teachers of Advanced Placement English. In 2007 Lightman released his most recent novel, Ghost, an examination of the dichotomies of the physical world and the spiritual world, scepticism and faith, the natural and the supernatural, and science and religion. In 2009, Lightman published his first volume of poetry, a book-length narrative in verse titled “Song of Two Worlds.”

In 2003, Lightman founded the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world, specifically through housing, education, and leadership training. The Foundation is funded from the donations of private individuals, foundations, and corporations. All major projects of the Foundation so far have taken place in Cambodia, a country in desperate need after essentially all of its educated class were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

In his scientific work, Lightman has made fundamental contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under extreme temperatures and densities. In particular, his research has focused on relativistic gravitation theory, the structure and behavior of accretion disks, stellar dynamics, radiative processes, and relativistic plasmas. Some of his significant achievements are his discovery, with Douglas Eardley, of a structural instability in orbitting disks of matter, called accretion disks, that form around massive condensed objects such as black holes, with wide application in astronomy

Alan Lightman was born in Memphis, Tennessess. His father was Richard Lightman, a movie theater owner, and his mother, Jeanne Garretson, a dancing teacher and volunteer Braille typist. He is one of four brothers, including Big Star bass guitarist John Lightman. From an early age, he was interested in both science and the arts and, while in high school, began independent science projects and writing poetry. His unusual combination of talents in both science and creative writing drew attention as he won city and state-wide science fairs as well as the state-wide competition for the National Council of Teachers of English award.  Lightman received his AB degree in physics from Princeton University. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974, where he had received a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship. He was an Assistant Professor of astronomy at Harvard University from 1976 to 1979 and from 1979 to 1989 a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astorphysics. In 1989, Lightman was appointed professor of science and writing and senior lecturer in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in science and the humanities. In 1995, he was appointed John Burchard Professor of Humanities at MIT, a position that he resigned in 2002 to allow himself more time for writing. He currently teaches at MIT as Adjunct Professor of Humanities.