Alan Lightman’s (and Everybody Else’s) Search





Alan Lightman is an astrophysicist with the soul of a Buddhist poet. Except he does not believe in souls. He is a materialist who goes about having spiritual experiences his science cannot quite…yet…explain. Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT, he made his scientific chops with a succession of important discoveries I cannot even understand well enough to boil down, except to know that when the first black hole was discovered, it was Lightman who calculated how gas would swirl around it. He also writes essays and novels and science books I can understand. Boyish even in his sixties, he has a gee-whiz sort of wonder that can seem naïve until you remember his credentials—or read his work.

Lightman first altered my brain waves with a slender, near-mystical book of astrophysical musings called Einstein’s Dreams. As the genius enters his REM state, Lightman imagines what he might dream up, bending our rigid brains with different hypothetical scenarios. “Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images,” he writes, introducing one of these hypothetical dreams. Or “suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.” Or suppose that “time has three dimensions. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people.”

Einstein’s Dreams is one of those elegant, deceptively simple books you know you need to reread a couple thousand times to fully grasp. Not that the book contains answers; what it contains are possibilities that act like crowbars, wedging your mind open.

Now Lightman has a new three-part documentary, Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science, that acts the same way. Sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, it is based on two of his nonfiction books, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, published in 2018, and The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science, which hits the shelves this March. The miniseries is titled carefully, refusing to lead us on with an empty tease, a promise of answers, certainty, closure. It is only a search, a intelligent, informed dramatization of a quest we all share.

Still, I listen and hope, because the questions are so damned important.

Can transcendent states—falling in love, soaking in beauty, or feeling so connected to the universe that you leave time and space and your body behind—be reduced to material causes, or do such experiences hint at something spiritual? If everything in the universe is made of the same stuff and all of it is impermanent, with even the stars burning out eventually, why do we humans long so fiercely for permanence? Does consciousness require flesh and blood? As technology changes what it means to be human, which parts of us should we try to preserve?

The first scene recreates a moment when Lightman lay on his back in a rowboat, staring up at the stars. “The boat disappeared,” he remembers. “My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. I felt as if I were part of the stars.” The distant past and future seemed compressed into a dot, he continues. “What was happening to me?”

He carries a picture similar to those stars inside the dark tube of an fMRI machine. All he can learn there is that his brain is reflecting, not problem-solving, and its activity is fast and furious, even though he was not conscious of any time passing at all.

Science has not been much help. What it can do, though, is blow our minds. There are as many neurons in each of our brains as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy, Lightman tells us.

“I estimate that only one billionth of one billionth of all matter in the cosmos is in living form.”

“In terms of powers of ten, we’re almost exactly midway in size between an atom and a star.”

“We are caught between nothingness and infinity.”

He visits Cern, where particles are accelerated to a speed that is 99.999999 percent of the speed of light and can generate 100,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field.

He tells us that the Hubble telescope confirmed that the universe is expanding and all the galaxies are moving away from one another. (What does that mean?)

He discusses consciousness with the Dalai Lama, who cuts through all the complicated definitions of self-awareness and says, “Consciousness only experience, nothing else.” Is consciousness physical, then? “Physically, there is beginning, there is end. But consciousness, no beginning, no end. Always there.”

Another point lost by the reductionists.

The miniseries aims for breadth, moving from the earliest history of the universe to the glance Lightman once exchanged with a wild osprey; from the farthest galaxy to the use of worms as fertilizer. He explores cyborg body parts and efforts to make AI conscious and wonders aloud, “When we have evolved into Homo techno, will we still feel connected to each other and to the universe?” Will some hybrid human lie in the bottom of a rowboat and sense themself merging with the stars?

My favorite moment is Lightman’s conversation with philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who says, “We are nature coming to know itself.” I hit pause to take that in. “Through us,” she continues, “nature has self-awareness.” Which feels true and deep and lovely, but only opens new questions, like how our artificial intelligence will affect nature….

According to the Penguin Random House blurb, Lightman’s new book, The Transcendent Brain, will reveal “that spirituality may not only be compatible with science, it also ought to remain at the core of what it means to be human.” Lightman, who by temperament is comfortable in both realms, urgently wants them to coexist. How exciting that would be, I muse: two giant puzzle pieces clicking into place. The world would finally make sense.

He calls this unitary view “spiritual materialism.” But just nudging those two words together will not automatically integrate science with spirit. Nor will standing on a mountaintop talking about how we are all made of starstuff, as he does at the documentary’s end. What is revealed in this lyrical, enlightening book is that spirituality may not only be compatible with science, but also ought to remain at the core of what it means to be human. I am eager to read his new book, hopeful all over again for a few answers. But I suspect the quest will continue—at least as long as we remain human.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.