Alan and Jean Lightman
47 Devens Street
Interviewed June 13, 2003
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Alan Lightman is a novelist, a physicist, and an educator. He is currently an adjunct professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the recipient of numerous awards and particularly explores the linking of science to the humanities.
Alan Lightman (age 54) — I'm interested in the human side of science for many reasons. One reason is that science is a human activity. There is the subject matter of science itself and then there is the activity of science, the doing of science, which is very much a human activity, and is full of all of the prejudices and emotional attachments that make us human. I'm interested in that and I'm interested in the way science informs us about ourselves that we learn about who we are in science. For example, after Copernicus's proposal that the earth orbit the sun instead of vice versa, we had a more humble place in the universe. I think all of the great discoveries in science help us understand who we are and how human beings fit into the cosmos. I also think that science is a part of our cultural heritage, like the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven that science is one of the great cultural achievements of human beings. I'm interested in exploring that aspect as well.
We live in an increasingly scientific and technological age, and not only that, we happen to live in a democracy where individual citizens have responsibility for making decisions, for advising their representatives to make decisions, and many of those decisions today involve science and technology. So I think to survive as a democracy that we also need science education.
Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture, "The American Scholar", that addresses the whole person. This is a lecture that he gave probably around 1860 or 1870 in downtown Boston. The lecture is about the whole person. It has an idea that we have farmers and soldiers and writers and politicians and musicians, and a member of society should have some element of all of those activities. They should be well rounded in a sense. Of course, as time goes on and we get more and more specialized as a civilization and society, it is harder for single people to be well rounded because there are more specializations. It was easier to be well rounded and to be a whole person I think in Emerson's day. But if we back off a little bit from the specialization and look at things more broadly, I think he was saying that a person really needs to be immersed in their society and in their culture no matter what their specialization is. They should connect to everything and be somewhat informed about other things.
Thoreau has influenced me in getting to the essentials of life in a very complex society. I wrote a whole novel, The Diagnosis, about how complex daily life has become, how the pace of life is just accelerating and going faster and faster. This is really a trend that has been going on since the industrial revolution and maybe even earlier. We've seen dramatic acceleration of the trend in the last few decades especially with the advent of high speed communication technologies. Life has just become more and more frantic. In such a frenzy, sometimes it is very hard to slow down enough to think about what our values are and what is important where we're going. These are many of the ideas that were in Thoreau's book, Walden which he was writing 150 years ago, and for him the great technology was the railroad. There's a wonderful line in Walden where he said, "We do not ride the railroads, the railroad rides us." But the principal message for me in that beautiful book is his idea of trying to confront that there are essentials of life. I think he used the phrase something like "he wants to back life into a corner and know what is life and what is not life". He wants to reduce life to its simplest elements so we can really feel it and live it and not just rush by it like a rushing train as the railroad must have gone by his house near Walden Pond. I think I have really taken that to heart.
As the demand for more and more information faster and faster gets greater, it is easy to confuse information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Where we were and how we were are all blurred now. Now that we have laptops and cell phones, we can work while we are on vacation.
Although the technologies we have of course were unimaginable in Thoreau's day, he certainly saw the general outlines of the problem. Conversation was important in those days. Now with e-mail such as I described in my book, the father e-mailing his son when they are in the same house.
As to my work about Einstein, one could talk about his work endlessly. There's a wonderful thing that Einstein said in one of his essays, and he actually wrote quite a lot of essays. He was a real philosopher and essayist and not just a physicist. After he became famous he was asked to give lectures all over the world, he gave lectures not just on physics but on ethics, philosophy, education, religion, all kinds of subjects. It was in one of those essays where he said, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that lies at the cradle of true art and true science. I think that by mysterious he did not mean that science is unpredictable or that there are supernatural forces in science and it was unfathomable, I think he meant that we can walk right to the edge between what is known and what is not known, and instead of feeling frightened, we can feel exhilarated when we're right at the edge and look into the vast cavern of what is unknown. He beautifully linked the sciences and the arts in talking about this sense of mysterious. I know the creative moment is identical in the sciences and the arts. I've experienced a creative moment both as a physicist and as a novelist, and it is a magical moment or a series of a few minutes where you get totally lost in the thing you are creating. You lose all sense of your body, you lose all sense of your ego, you lose all sense of time, you just become a pure spirit. It is thrilling. I don't think many people have experienced it, but it is thrilling. But the amazing thing is that the sensation is exactly the same in the sciences and the arts and I think it is probably the same in all creative activities. It's related to what Einstein said about the mysterious. It's a common sensation that comes across all disciplines and human activities.
Another thing he said was "the world is not always what it appears to be". I don't know that that was related to the mysterious, but was related to a particular science that he did. I think "reality is not what you observe in something" is one of his scientific legacies having worked specifically on the theory of relativity where he found that time does not behave the way we think it does, all of our experience in the physical world suggests that time is absolute, a second is a second is a second for you as well as for me. That kind of understanding of time is very, very deep in our primal interaction in the world. It is very, very deep in us. It is terribly disturbing when Mr. Einstein tells us that that's not the way that time behaves. If you and I have clocks or wristwatches that are synchronized and you walk in a space ship and travel at high speed and come back, your clock will show that less time has passed for you than for me. So a second is not a second, it depends upon the motion of the observer, the person wearing the wristwatch. So that's very disturbing. It disturbs us greatly because it contradicts our experience with the world. If we travel at very, very high speeds, closer to the speed of light, than we would understand that and we would have a different experience in the world, but we travel at slow speeds and our physical intuition is totally opposed to that. I think the message there is that the world can be very different from the way that it appears to be. Physical reality might be very different than our experience with physical reality. This sort of upset hundreds of centuries of belief that if you just observed nature closely enough that you would understand nature, and Einstein says this is not necessarily so. So it has philosophical significance as well as interest to physicists.
I don't know why I have a fascination with time. I knew with Einstein's Dreams that time was the subject of the book, and I realized with The Diagnosis that I was describing a very high speed world, and so time comes in in that we don't have enough of it. With The Reunion, which is largely about memory and how we construct our identity from memory, that involves time in a more subtle manner but still involves time. I was not aware when I was writing that book that I was dealing with time. I think sometimes a writer's themes are not apparent to the writer at the time that he or she is writing the book. I think my fascination with time is related in some way to my fascination with consciousness and how it is that we are and how we are aware of ourselves as entities that are separate from the rest of the universe around us. To be conscious you have to be aware of yourself as separate from your surroundings. Part of our extended consciousness is based on memory, and how different events in our lives are sorted in time. It seems to me that every ten years or so we become a different person because our memories get faint or get twisted and we have to sort of recreate ourselves. So in an indirect way I think my interest in consciousness has overflowed into themes about time. But that is the best I can do as to any kind of explanation or rationale for it.
The Reunion comes out in a month and it is about a 30th college reunion. The main character had a devastating love affair when he was very young, 22 years old, and he relives this and while he relives it he realized that he has misremembered a lot of things or at least what he reexperiences is not what he thinks happened. He's able to read experiences in his senior year in a vivid way that's actually more vivid than a memory. So it is partly about memory and the way he has constructed his identity out of memory and the reliable nature of memory.
The idea for the book came sort of accidentally and indirectly through the back door. I attended my own 30th college reunion a few years ago and all of us were asked ahead of time to write a few paragraphs about ourselves for the reunion book. I started to have some fun with it and instead of writing something autobiographical, I wrote something fictitious. The thing I wrote was receiving a little toy model of the campus and looking at the model and seeing myself at age 22 sitting under a tree reading a love letter, so that's what I sent in. Later I began getting haunted by this love letter, what was the 22-year-old reading, who was the young woman behind it, what was her story, and in an attempt to answer those questions I produced the whole novel. Some of the classmates were sort of amused and intrigued by the paragraphs I wrote.
The Diagnosis gives sort of a dim view of technology. I hope that on closer thought of the novel that people realized I'm really talking about the whole society in which technology takes place. The fact that technology doesn't have values itself, it's how we use technology that gives it value and it can be used for good or for ill. But certainly the way that it is used by our society in a large extent and the way it is used in the fictitious society in the novel is something that I portray darkly and with suspicion in the book.
I was naturally frightened and worried when I published it how my colleagues at MIT would react because MIT is the temple of technology. On the whole people reacted well. I got a letter from the president of MIT. He's a wonderful man named Charles Vest. He's now been president about 10 years. He said that he normally does all his correspondence by e-mail but for this letter to me he was going to write it and it was a handwritten letter. He said that he really enjoyed the book. It was wonderful he took the time to read it in the first place and then to write me about it. I was relieved that he had a positive response to it. He's a very open-minded, enlightened, liberal, tolerant man, and so he reacted this way instead of taking offense.
MIT is a wonderful place to teach in many ways because the students are extremely bright. They are original. Whatever they do when they write things, when they do homework assignments, they are original. That is really exciting for a teacher. They come in on the whole I would say narrowly educated in science and math. They don't have this broad reading of culture as Harvard students. I've taught at Harvard also. I was on the Harvard faculty for 10 years before I went to MIT, so I have a good sense of the differences in the student bodies. The students at MIT are brighter and they are quicker and more original, but they are not nearly as well read as the Harvard students. What I don't like about MIT and I don't mind saying this is that it's too high pressure, it's a workaholic place and I don't think this is good for the students and I don't think it's good for the faculty. The students are madly rushing to learn as much as they can. They take as many courses as they can. They just assume that more is better. It is their mantra. The more you can cram in, the better. They assume that all technology is progress. If you design a car that goes at twice the speed as the current cars, you should design it. If you can build a machine that goes twice as fast, you should build it. If you can build a computer that stores twice the information, you should build it. They just assume without questioning that more is better. They don't take the time or they don't have the time to slow down and really think about what is important, what is the value of their lives, what is the value of this technology, to question the technology. Some technology can be used well and some cannot be used well, how should we be using the technology? What is important? They don't the time to go back to square zero and ask the question, why are we doing this? What do I really believe in? What's really important? They don't have the time for that. The students and faculty are similar. They are all rushing too rapidly.
I think the students take the connection of science and humanities more or less well. We do have courses at MIT that are specifically interdisciplinary courses where that's the essence of the course. If I'm teaching a physics course and I ask the students to write an essay about the history of the subject, they will complain because they just want equations and experiments. They don't want to have to write. They figure that's for the humanities and that shouldn't belong in a physics course, so I meet resistance sometimes depending on how I do it. I feel it is certainly very, very important for scientists and engineers to be trained in the humanities and have a sense of how their work fits into the larger society and how they can contribute to the larger society, and you need humanities for that.
The spiritual also influences me. I think everybody has a different concept of the spiritual. For me what Einstein said in that quote about the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious is close to my understanding of the mysterious. There is something bigger than I am that has meaning and I feel that this sense of mysterious or sense of the spiritual is in all the things that are right, every book, every sentence. It's there in some way that I can't quantify, but I think it's there. I think the creative moment is part of the spiritual. When you lose sense of your ego and yourself, you become a part of something larger. You are no longer an individual, you are part of something larger and that is related to the spiritual, I think. The creative moment I experienced is spiritual and my understanding of the spiritual.
The Great Ideas in Physics are four principles and how they influence the arts and social sciences. This is an interdisciplinary book where I wanted to show the two-way interaction between science and humanities and arts, so I picked four great ideas in physics — the conservation of energy, the second law of thermodynamics, the relativity of time, and the white particle duality of nature and quantum physics. I discuss each idea first in scientific terms and then show how it was influenced by and in turn influenced philosophy, literature, and the arts. I have excerpts from writings and philosophy and literature and history and the arts that show the influence of the ideas in science. Going the other way, I also have some excerpts from the scientific biographies where some of the scientists will talk about they were influenced by humanists which is more rare. Scientists tend to think they are not influenced by the humanists and the arts. That's sort of the nature of the book.
The conservation of energy states that there is a quantity that can be defined mathematically and can be measured experimentally called energy. For example, if balls are in motion, in the energy of motion you also have heat energy, you have electrical energy, you have gravitation energy, and if you add up all the different kinds of energy of a closed system, that is a system in a box that doesn't interact with the outside world, and even though that system may undergo changes within it in one kind of energy being transformed to another kind, the total amount of energy is fixed. It never changes, which is a beautiful idea. It is called a conservation principle in physics.
The second law of thermodynamics states that systems get more and more disordered in time. You have a room that you've just cleaned after a month, it's dusty. It's messier. If you have a deck of cards that are all arranged in order and you dropped the cards on the floor and reshuffled, the cards are out of order. Nature evolved in such a way that it becomes more disordered in time and that's the second law of thermodynamics.
The relatively of time, we already discussed that a little bit. It says that time is not flowing in an absolute way, but that the rate of flow of time depends upon the motion of the clock. If you have two clocks in motion roll up to each other, they will not be ticking at the same rate. Only when the clocks are at rest relative to each will they tick at the same rate.
The white particle duality of quantum physics states that all objects in nature have a wave-like quality as well as a particle like quality. A wave is something that is in many places at the same time. A water wave occupies an extended region. You see a wave on the ocean, you can't look at it at a single point, it is in several, it covers a finite range. Two waves can interfere with one another and so on. Particle is something that is located at a single point in space. What the wave particle duality says is that everything has both kinds of qualities. So there is a tremendous amount that follows from that but one of the things that follows is that we can never have complete knowledge about the system because we can't pinpoint it. If everything was a particle, you could pinpoint it and then you could say where it would be at the next incident in time. If you can't pinpoint something, and you don't know exactly where it is, so you don't know exactly where it will be at some future moment in time. So it leads to a certain kind of uncertainty in nature in terminancy which has philosophical consequences. So those are the four great ideas.
Jean Lightman (age 50) — I am a painter trained in classical technique. I was influenced by the impressionists. The way I was trained is called the Boston School tradition. It was brought to the city of Boston by a number of mostly men who were studying at the turn of the century or just before that, in the late 1800s. A number of them went to France, some to Germany and studied in the academic Italianate in Paris and a few in Germany. They were trained in the classical way of learning to paint at this time in which there was a lot of emphasis on accurate drawing, also design, compositions were very important. The salons in Paris had exhibitions and they were judged based on design along with a number of other elements and this would have been historical paintings. So these men learned all this very academic way of painting. But they were at the same time influenced by the French impressionists. And many of the impressionists at the time were also studying classically but they became very interested in the relationship of light and shadow and color. Mostly they were interested in color relationships. And so these Bostonians kind of melded the two together and brought back to this country what was sort of the American impressionist tradition of painting, but it was called the Boston School because it was fairly academic. Mainly the paintings done by these people had a beautiful sense of design and lovely color relationships. I was lucky enough to find someone to study with who had been trained by one of these people. They taught at the Museum School at the turn of the century and left in about 1913 because there was a rift, which is a long story that I won't go into now.
But at any rate they continued to teach and one of their pupils was a man named William Paxton. The men I'm talking about that were the major ones were Edmund Tarbell, Frank W. Benson, and Joseph DeCamp. There were a number of other very fine painters as well like them. William Paxton was a student of these people, and he taught a man named Ives Gammel. He became a sort of lone star carrying this tradition during the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s when it was most unpopular. Most people were not interested in learning this very classical academic tradition. Abstract impressionism was becoming very popular in the ‘60s followed by a number of other movements. This one man, Ives Gammel, taught a number of young students. You had to be in your early 20s, you had to be male, and you had to be white. He did teach these young students who then went on to teach themselves and I was lucky enough to find one of those students.
I started out by doing charcoal drawings of plastic casts in order to learn shape relationships, proportions, edges where light and shadow meet and form certain edges where the light is very bright and shadows were darker. There would be hard edges if you're just looking at a round bust and where the light sort of dissolved into the shadow the edges get soggier. You learn to see all those different edges and represent them. I studied for almost 10 years. I did a year and a half of cast drawings and then I started doing black and white still life and color still life, figure drawing and portrait painting.
I feel very strongly that the type of painting that I want to do is what I'm striving for is to find the beauty in nature around me. And to paint scenes that bring beauty and serenity to the viewer. To me that's the gift I can offer to the art loving world. I don't paint sort of dramatic scenes that stir you up. I think those are valuable in their own way but that is a different type of painter. The type of work that I prefer to do and have done now for more than 20 years is the type that really celebrates the beauty of nature and the quiet of nature and brings a stillness and peacefulness to the viewer.
I'm very much influenced by the Concord landscape. It's no accident that Alan and I ended up in Concord when we were first looking for places to live. We talked about living in the city as opposed to living out of the city. He was really adamant, and I finally realized that he was right, that he wanted to live in a place that offered open space and beautiful surrounding. We're very lucky to be able to live here. We both feel that way. So the landscape has very much influenced me. We spend our summers on the coast of Maine which is also an extremely beautiful area and very dear to our hearts. So I paint in the summer outdoors up there. Both of those locations are part of what I bring to the canvas. I think the whole coast of Maine is beautiful.
I have been doing a bit of oral history with artists. It dawned on me four or five months ago that there are a whole group of painters in Boston that are members of The Guild of Boston Artists, which is the old association of artists who joined together in 1914 as a gallery to provide gallery space for artists. Many of the galleries at that time were moving into sort of more modern work and very white walls for displaying and artificial light, and these painters felt it was very important to have a gallery where you could have medium value walls and natural light, so they formed this guild. The man I was talking about earlier, Gammel, was a member of the Guild, and I believe president of it for a while, and most of his students who live in the Boston area are members of the Guild. It dawned on me that some of these people were getting older, and it would be valuable to have their thoughts about painting and their memories of Gammel on videotape. So I've managed to do two interviews of Gammel's students so far asking them about Gammel himself and what they learned from him and what they have acquired on their own experience in terms of painting. I think it will be useful down the road for artists like myself who always want to ask people questions. I would love to be able to go back to Edmund Tarbell and ask him questions about painting, and of course it's not there. This I hope will be a legacy for future artists.
Artists filter reality very much. When you look at a scene painted by an artist, a landscape for instance, what you're seeing is nature but it is filtered through the mind of the painter. So if I'm painting a landscape, I may have noticed a particular scene in front of me, perhaps early morning sunlight just emerging as the fog dissipates something like that would have caught my eye, and I may decide to paint that scene. But what I'm interested in is the particular way that the light looked at a certain time, and I may decide that for design reasons I want to leave out a clump of trees on the left-hand side of the foreground which detracts from what I really feel is most special about this particular scene which might be a little riverlet that runs through the center. So I'm constantly looking at scenes and trying to work them out so that I can maximize the impact on me, the thing that calls out to me as the painter to paint that scene.
This filtering certainly gives art its power and its mystery. I have a book that in the back Frank Benson has his advice to artists. One of the things that I noticed that I thought was a great quote, and this was after I told you how important the academic training was, but in fact as you move on and what I've learned and what he is recommending in his advice to artists which delighted me to see, that in fact it's not about being a slave to every leaf that you see in front of you, it's really all about design. I've been really trying to sort of think this through over the last few years, as I've been on my own now for about 10 years and struggling along to figure out what it is that I want to be doing in the way I paint. The thing I'm starting to understand is that there is this challenge to make a scene for me. I want the scene to look like nature. I want it to look like something I've seen, not something that just popped out of the top of my head. But it has to have an aesthetic that's filtered through my mind. So that's the challenge, and sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't.