On March 5 in the Management Building, Alan Lightman, a renowned physicist and novelist, gave a lecture to interested Tech students. The event was organized by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Honors Program.
Gregory Nobles, head of the Honors Program, and Paul Houston, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, delivered introductory remarks.
Many of their comments were relevant to Tech’s budding scientists. For example, Houston spoke of the necessity of valuing the public’s opinions and concerns in the scientific field.
Lightman is distinguished in both the scientific and literary worlds. He has won a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship and has written a literary bestseller, Einstein’s Dreams.
Currently a humanities professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he is unusual in that he embodies both literary prose and high scientific caliber. Giving the audience some insight into his life, he spoke of some of his wackier scientific endeavors as a young boy including induction coil experiments and rockets with improperly made wings.
Lightman remarked that human beings and their behaviors would often confuse him and cause him tension.
Caught at the crossroads of literature and science, he maintained that the contrasts between these two fields fueled much of his creative growth.
His lecture concentrated on how literature and science do not have to contradict each other and in many ways they actually support one another. Writers and scientists share common aims since both writers and scientists share the same unconscious desire for order and beauty.
He pointed out that for a long time, the scientific community upheld the notion that the orbits of planets were perfect circles rather than ellipses.
Many great scientific achievements have been creative and fulfilling forays plumbing the depths of human imagination.
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was in many ways an eccentric, individualistic foray into a world of his own, which enabled him to perceive some truth to life.
At the same time, there is no doubt that scientists and artists often differ in what they regard as most important.
Scientists like to stipulate clear definitions and theorems, a reductionist approach.
Writers however, feed on the various thoughts, experiences and perceptions of their readers.
They write broadly enough to enable each to create his/her own masterpiece, a subjective experience.
Lightman also mentioned that in the early 20th century, subjectivity became a part of the scientific experience as well.
For the first time, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle revealed how perception can alter supposedly objective reality.
Science and literature may have more in common than is usually realized.
“I felt that the Lightman discussion will really enlighten me about different aspects of science that I wouldn’t think about on a regular basis,” said Sierra Schmidt, first-year Biochemistry major.
Alan Lightman concluded the lecture with words from James Joyce.
After the event, students asked the esteemed professor questions regarding spirituality, the impact of perception on the scientific experience, the classification of economics as a science and the funding of the liberal arts and sciences.
Notably Professor Lightman did not give authoritative answers and seemed as curious and seeking of answers as the students themselves.
Some students were even fortunate enough to get a signed copy of Einstein’s Dreams. Student reactions towards the book seemed generally positive.
Michael Lu, who shares Memphis as his hometown along with Lightman, also commented on the discussion.
“It’s exciting to have a well-known person from Memphis to come to Tech. I’m really excited to hear another perspective about science and the arts,” said Michael Lu, first-year Industrial Engineering major.
The professor agreed that the role scientists play in today’s society should be one of humanistic citizens.
Lightman maintained that it is important that scientists do not wholly define their job or role as that of seeking abstract truths.