Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. Currently, he is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Until 2003, he was John Burchard Professor of the Humanities at MIT.
Welcome to my web site, which is maintained by MIT. Following is a brief biography, a list of books published (with detailed descriptions), some selected interviews, selected recent publications, and some scientific publications. I do not use e-mail, but you can reach me at my MIT office: Alan Lightman, Room 14E-303, MIT, Cambridge MA 02139, telephone: (617) 253-2308. [last revised June 16, 2021]
I have just published a new book, titled Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings. It is a collection of meditative essays on the possibilities, and impossibilities, of nothing and infinity – and how our place in the cosmos falls somewhere between. I was recently interviewed by Publisher’s Weekly about the book: “The Universe According to Alan Lightman”.
Lightman was born in Memphis Tennessee in 1948, son of Richard Lightman, a movie theater owner, and Jeanne Garretson, a dancing teacher and volunteer Braille typist. From an early age, he was entranced by both science and the arts and, while in high school, began independent science projects and writing poetry. He won state-wide science fairs and was the state winner of the National Council of Teachers of English literary award. In 1966, he graduated from White Station High School in Memphis. Lightman received his AB degree in physics from Princeton University in 1970, Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, and his PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974. He has received five honorary degrees.
From 1974 to 1976, Lightman was a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Cornell. During this period, he began publishing poetry in small literary magazines. He was an assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard from 1976 to 1979 and from 1979 to 1989 a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
In 1981, Lightman began publishing essays about science, the human side of science, and the “mind of science,” beginning with Smithsonian Magazine and moving to Science 82, The New Yorker, and other magazines. Since that time, Lightman’s essays, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Review, Daedalus, Discover, Exploratorium, Granta, Harper’s, Harvard Magazine, Inc Technololgy, Nature, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Science 86, The Sciences, Smithsonian, Story, Technology Review, and World Monitor.
In 1989, Lightman was appointed professor of science and writing, and senior lecturer in physics, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From 1991 to 1997, he headed the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. During this period, he helped create a new Communication Requirement at MIT (first instituted in 2001), which requires all MIT undergraduates to have a course equivalent in writing or speaking each of their four years. In 1995, he was appointed John E. Burchard professor of humanities at MIT, a chair named after the first dean of humanities at MIT (1948 – 1964). In 2001, Lightman cofounded the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, which accepted its first students in the fall of 2002. In the same year, he resigned his chair to allow more time for his writing and became adjunct professor at MIT.
In 2004, Lightman cofounded the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, which is a collaboration between MIT and the Underground Railway Theater of Boston. The Catalyst Collaborative aims to convey science and the culture of science through theater. CC@MIT commissions new plays and produces existing plays that involve science or scientists. In 2007, with playwright and director Kate Snodgrass and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., Lightman founded the Kennedy Center American College Theater Award for a play about science. This award is given biannanually to the best play involving science written by a college student. The theme for the first award was “global warming.” The upcoming theme is “women in science.”
As both a distinguished physicist and an accomplished novelist, Lightman is one of only a small number of people who straddle the sciences and the humanities. He was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities. His essay “In the Name of Love?” was the first article about love and language published in Nature, the prestigious international science journal (October 8, 2001), and his “The First Law of Thermodynamics” was the first short story published in the physics journal Physics Today (May 2005). He has lectured at more than 100 universities nationwide about the similarities and differences in the ways that scientists and artists view the world.
In his scientific work, Lightman has made fundamental contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under conditions of 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. He is best known for his discovery, with Douglas Eardley, of a secular instability in accretion disks, which have wide application in astronomy; for his proof, with David Lee, that all gravitation theories obeying the Weak Equivalence Principle must be metric theories of gravity; for his discovery of the negative heat behavior of optically thin, hot thermal plasmas dominated by electron-positron pairs; and for his work on unsaturated inverse Compton scattering in thermal media, also with wide application in astrophysics. His research articles have appeared in The Physical Review, The Astrophysical Journal, Reviews of Modern Physics, Nature, and other journals of physics and astrophysics. For his contributions to physics, he was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society in 1989 and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the same year. In 1990, he chaired the science panel of the National Academy of Sciences Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee for the 1990s. He is a past chair of the High Energy Division of the American Astronomical Society.
Lightman has also been interested in science education and the philosophy of science. His work in science studies and in science education has been published in The American Scholar, The Physics Teacher, Science, Science and Children, The Science Teacher, and Social Studies of Science.
Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. It was runner-up for the 1994 PEN New England/Boston Globe Winship Award. Einstein’s Dreams was also the March 1998 selection for National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” Book Club. The novel is one of the most widely used texts in universities in the U.S. and, in many cases, adopted for university-wide “common-book” programs. More than fifty independent theatrical and musical productions around the world have been based on Einstein’s Dreams.
Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in fiction, a selection of Book Sense 76, and a Barnes and Noble national college bestseller. Lightman’s latest novel, Reunion, was a selection of Books Sense 76, a Boston Globe/New England bestseller, a Washington Post bestseller, a Barnes and Nobel national college bestseller, and a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. Lightman’s collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious, was a finalist for the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award. Lightman’s newest book, The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science, was named by Discover Magazine as one of the ten best books on science in 2005. The Accidental Universe (2014) was named by Brainpickings as one of the ten best books of the year. The partially fictionalized memoir Screening Room (2015) was named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of the year.
Other awards include the 1990 Association of American Publishers’ Award for Origins as the best book of the year in physical science. In 1995 Lightman was named a Literary Light of the Boston Public Library. In 1996 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and also won the 1996 American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award for linking science to the humanities. In 1998, he was awarded the 1998 Gyorgy Kepes Prize in the Arts from MIT’s Council for the Arts. In 2003, he received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the California Institute of Technology, that Institution’s highest honor. That year, he also received the 2003 Distinguished Arts and Humanities Medal for Literature, given by the Germantown Arts Alliance (of Tennessee). In May of 2006, he received the Boston Authors’ Club Julia Ward Howe Special Award. Sigma Xi, the international scientific research society, has awarded Lightman the 2006 John P. McGovern Science and Society Award. Lightman has twice been a juror for the Pulitzer Prize, for general nonfiction in 1994 and for fiction in 2004.In 2011, Lightman received a Sydney Award for the best magazine essays of 2011, for his essay “The Accidental Universe,” published in Harper’s magazine. In February 2012, Mr g was chosen as the Novel of the Week by The Week Magazine. Lightman’s essay “What Came Before the Big Bang?” published in Harper’s in 2016, was named by David Brooks in the New York Times as one of the best essays of the year in any category. In 2016, Lightman won the Distinguished Artist of the Year Award from St. Botolph’s Club of Boston. Lightman also was the inaugural winner of the Humanism in Literature Award of the Harvard Humanist Hub.
In 2005, Lightman received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Bowdoin College. In 2006, he received and Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Memphis College of Arts, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In 2010, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Massachusetts. In 2017, Lightman received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Colgate University. In 2019, Lightman received an honorary doctorate of humanities from Skidmore College.
In May 2008, the government of Cambodia awarded Lightman the Gold Medal for humanitarian service to Cambodia, personally bestowed by Deputy Prime Minister Kong Sam Ol. See the Harpswell Foundation, below.
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 June 2005, the Harpswell Foundation completed a four-room school building in the village of Tramung Chrum, about 50 miles from Phnom Penh. In July 2006, the Foundation completed a dormitory and leadership center for college women in Phnom Penh, which allows outstanding women to attend college. This dormitory serves all the colleges in Phnom Penh and is one of the first dormitories for women in Cambodia. Not having a safe place to live while attending college has been the major obstacle preventing young women from outside Phnom Penh (over 90% of the population) to receive a college education. Colleges in Cambodia do not provide housing for their students. Male students can live in the Buddhist temples, but female students cannot. The dormitory and leadership center houses 36 women, who have been selected on the basis of their intelligence, ambition, and leadership potential. In addition to providing free housing, food, and medical care, the facility gives these young women free classes in English and computer skills; readings and discussion of current events in Cambodia and the world to develop their critical thinking skills; and a weekly leadership seminar. In 2010, the Harpswell Foundation completed a second dormitory and leadership center for college women in Phnom Penh, housing 48 young women. The new facility has a large conference room, called the Hall of Great Women, where we hold national conferences on the theme of women’s empowerment. For further information, please see the website of the Harpswell Foundation. In 2017, Harpswell launched a new program in leadership for young professional women from all ten countries of Southeast Asia: Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei. The program consists of an intense, two week summer program in Penang Malaysia, with lectures and workshops in critical thinking, civic engagement, Southeast Asian geography and society, technology and communication, and gender issues. The program will have a total of 25 participants each year and will develop a strong alumnae association.
(For a description of each book, click on its title.)
Screening Room (2015)
Essays and Fables:
Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe (1984)
A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court (1986)
Dance for Two (1996)
Best American Essays 2000, (Guest Editor), (2000)
Living with the Genie, (coedited with Christina Desser, and Daniel Sarewitz)(2003)
Heart of the Horse (with Juliet von Otteren) (2004)
A Sense of the Mysterious (2005)
The Accidental Universe (2014)
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (2021)
Books on science:
Problem Book in Relativity and Gravitation (with W. H. Press, R. H. Price, and S. A. Teukolsky) (1975)
Radiative Processes in Astrophysics (with G. B. Rybicki) (1979)
Origins: the Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (with R. Brawer) (1990)
Ancient Light. Our Changing View of the Universe (1991)
Great Ideas in Physics (1992, new edition in 2000)
Time for the Stars. Astronomy for the 1990s (1992)
The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science (November, 2005)
San Francisco Examiner, March 31, 1993
Washington Post, Style Section, June 9, 1993
People, June 14, 1993
Boston Globe, Living Arts, December 27, 1993
Publisher’s Weekly, January 9, 1995
The Hartford Courant, Hartford CT, February 8, 1995
Alaska Quarterly, Fall and Winter 1996
Physics Today, February 1997
Washington Post, Book World, April 23, 2000
Boston Herald, October 5, 2000
Memphis Flyer, Steppin Out, October 5 – 11, 2000
Identity Theory, Fall 2000
Chicago Tribune, Tempo, October 17, 2000
Concord Journal (Concord MA), October 19, 2000
Newsday, October 29, 2000
The New York Times, Business Section, November 20, 2000
The Toronto Star, pg. F7, May 19, 2002
New York Times, “Lab Coat Chic: The Arts Embrace Science,” p. F1, January 28, 2003
Engineering Inc., March/April 2003
Caltech News, Volume 37, Number 2, Fall 2003
Chronicle of Higher Education, Infotech, September 22, 2003
Boston Sunday Globe, Ideas Section, March 6, 2005
Anchorage Daily News, Arts and Culture Section, August 26, 2005
Seed, salon with Richard Colton, October/November 2005
Writing on the Edge, pg. 93, Fall 2005
Interview with Donna Seaman of Open Book, 2005
Livescience.com, interview with Sara Goudarzi, February 15, 2006
Literary Traveler, Spring 2007
The International Herald Tribune, November 19, 2007, “MIT Physicist Empowers Young Cambodian Women”
“On Point,” National Public Radio, November 27, 2007
Poets and Writers, “Questions with Answers and Questions Without,” November/December 2007
Spectrum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spring 2008
“My Daily Read” Chronicle of High Education, December 8, 2010
CBSNews, January 24, 2012
The Atlantic, January 25, 2012
WBUR Radio with Anthony Brooks, February 7, 2012
Boston Globe, February 12, 2012
A Dorm of their own, Inside Higher Ed, December 10, 2012.
“Novel Physics,” Publisher’s Weekly, October 4, 2013
Radio Boston with Anthony Brooks, January 31, 2014
Aspen Public Radio, First Draft, January 2014
PodAcademy, February 28, 2014
Harper’s Magazine, Six Questions, March 19, 2014
Nautilus Magazine, Ingenious: Alan Lightman, August 2014
Ascend Podcast, The Spiritual Universe, September 2017
“Science and Spirituality,” WBUR NPR Radio Boston, April 2018
“Religion, Science, and Philosophy,” Maine Public Radio, April 2018
“You’ve Wasted Another Perfectly Good Hour and That’s OK,” KERA radio, May 24, 2018
“Time is Still a Mystery to Einstein’s Dreams Author,” New York Times, February 13, 2020
“Interview with Ignas Staškevičius of Lithuania on Mind and Universe,” Eximia, 2019.
“Stardust, Meaning, Religion, and Science,” EconTalk with Russ Roberts, April 27, 2020.
Interview with Oprah Winfrey, May 10, 2020
PBS Christiane Amanpour and Co., October 19, 202
“The Universe According to Alan Lightman,” Publishers Weekly, October 30, 2020
Podcast: Veritas Forum, February 10, 2021
Podcast, Lithub with Andrew Keane, Probable Impossibilities, February 18, 2021
Podcast: New Books Network with Dan Hill, Probable Impossibilities, February 18, 2021
Podcast: Inquiry, with Mark Lynch, WICN radio, March 1, 2021
Podcast: James Altucher show, Probable Impossibilities, March 11, 2021
Podcast: First Draft, with Mitzi Rapkin of Aspen Public Radio, Probable Impossibilities, March 15, 2021
Podcast: Christian Science Monitor, with Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll, March 20, 2021
Podcast: The Next Big Idea, with Jeremy Price, March 25, 2021
Podcast: The Beautiful Thinkers Project, April 2021. (Written interview)
Podcast: Rebound Talks, April 26, 2021
Podcast: Broadcast, with Smriti Keshari, June 12, 2021
Selected Recent Publications
“Maine Light,” Boston Review, April/May 1996.
“Always Ask for Cash,” Story, Winter 1997.
“The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” Physics Today, May 2005.
“Reprisals,” Daily Lit, December 2013.
“My Back Pages,” Boston Globe, Book section, April 24, 1994
“The Uncertainty Principle,” Technology Review, April 1996; also published under the title “Seasons”
“Hallelujah,” in A Place Within, ed. Jodi Daynard (New York: W.W. Norton) (1996)
“The Contradictory Genius,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 1997.
“A Cataclysm of Thought” The Atlantic Monthly, January 1999.
“One Stuff,” Harvard Magazine, July-August 1999.
“In God’s Place,” The New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1999.
“The Public Intellectual,” MIT Forum (1999)
“The Writing Life,” The Washington Post, Book World, April 23, 2000.
“Portrait of the Writer as a Young Scientist,” The New York Times, Science Times, May 9, 2000.
“Capturing the Light,” The New York Times, Op-Ed page, February 7, 2001.
“In the Name of Love?,” Nature, October 8, 2001.
“Prisoners of the Wired World,” Globe and Mail (Canada), March 16, 2002.
“Megaton Man,” New York Review of Books, May 23, 2002.
“The Art of Science,” New Scientist, December 28, 2002.
“The Lure of Genius,” Seed, Jan/Feb 2003.
“Art that Transfigures Science,” The New York Times, Arts and Ideas, March 15, 2003.
“The World is Too Much with Me” in Living with the Genie, ed. Chris Deser, Alan Lightman, and Daniel Sarewitz
(Washington: Island Press, 2003)
“A Sense of the Mysterious,” Daedalus, Fall 2003
“Spellbound by the Eternal Riddle,” The New York Times, Science Times, November 11, 2003
“The Power of Books ” (Letter from Cambodia), Boston Globe, Op-Ed, January 18, 2004
“Einstein and Newton,” Scientific American, September 2004
“The Twilight Zone,” in Prime Time, ed. Douglas Bauer (New York: Crown) (2004)
“A Tale of Two Loves,” Nature, March 17, 2005
“Red, White, and Bamboo,” (Second Letter from Cambodia), The New York Times, Op-Ed Page, July 5, 2005
“Moments of Truth,” The New Scientist, November 19, 2005
“The Power of Mysteries,” on NPR “This I Believe,” www.prx.org/pieces/10917 January 2, 2006
“Wheels of Fortune,” Science and Spirit, May/June 2006
“The Ambiguity is the Essence,” review of Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch, Nature, 21/28 December 2006
“Tick Tock Watch the Clock,” Globe and Mail (Canada), March 10, 2007
“Sailboat with a View,” The New York Times, City Section, Op-Ed Page, Sunday, August 19, 2007
“The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino,” Nature, Volume 460, page 329, 16 July 2009
“Bridging the Two Cultures,” World Literature Today, pg. 30, January/February 2011
“Time,” in Science and Culture, ed. Adam Bly (Harper Perennial, New York, 2010), pg. 4
“Does God Exist?” Salon,October 2, 2011
“The Accidental Universe” Harpers Magazine,December 2011
“The Temporary Universe,” Tin House, issue 51, Spring 2012
“Our Place in the Universe,” Harper’s, December 2012
“The Temporary Universe,” Orion, March/April 2013
“Longing for Permanence in a Fleeting Universe,” Wall Street Journal, Speakeasy. February 13, 2014
“Science and Religion,” Washington Post, April 10, 2014
“Our Lonely Home in Nature,” New York Times, Op-ed, May 2, 2014
“Nothingness,” Nautilus, August 28, 2014
“Attention,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2014
“Harpswell Foundation Enables Education for Women in Cambodia”, the New Global Citizen, August 6, 2015
“The Ghost House of My Childhood,” the New York Times Sunday Review, August 23, 2015
“Splitting the Moon,” Guernica, September 15, 2015
“The Detection of Gravitational Waves, and Patience,” Washington Post, Op-Ed, February 19, 2016
“What Came Before the Big Bang?” Harper’s, January 2016.
“The Nature of Things: Why I Love Physics,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 2, 2016
“Faith in Science,” Tin House, Spring 2016
“The Ache for Order, the Virtue of Chance,” Undark, posted February 22, 2016.
“My Personal Heroes in Science,” Nautilus, December 30, 2016
“Empowering Girls in Cambodia Starts with Dormitories,” News Deeply, March 16, 2017
“Thinking Big Thoughts about the Boundary of Science,” Washington Post, January 5, 2018.
“The Infinity of the Small,” Harper’s, March 2018.
“Consciousness,” The Fabulist, March 2018
“How the Heavens Fell to Earth,” Nautilus, March 2018
“Fact and Faith: Why Science and Spirituality are not Incompatible,” BBC Focus, 5 April 2018
“Meditations on Fact and Faith,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 11, 2018
“Deep Space,” Downeast Magazine, April 2018
“Review of Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, New York Times Book Review, May 14, 2018
“In Defense of Disorder,” in Aeon, April 15, 2019
“The Coronavirus is a Reminder of Something Lost Long Ago,” The Atlantic, April 1, 2020
“Movie theaters survived a century of change. We must save them from covid-19”, The Washington Post, December 29, 2020
“It Seems that I Know How the Universe Originated,” The Atlantic, February 8, 2021
“Where Science and Miracles Meet,” The Atlantic, March 22, 2021
Descriptions of Books
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings is a collection of meditative essays on the possibilities, and impossibilities, of nothingness and infinity—and how our place in the cosmos falls somewhere between. Can space be divided into smaller and smaller units, ad infinitum? Does space extend to larger and larger regions, on and on to infinity? Is consciousness reducible to the material brain and its neurons? What was the origin of life, and can biologists create life from scratch in the lab? Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, whom the Washington Post has called “the poet laureate of science writers,” explores these questions and more – from the anatomy of a smile to the capriciousness of memory to the specialness of life in the universe what came before the Big Bang. Probable Impossibilities is a deeply engaging consideration of what we know of the universe, of life and the mind, and of things vastly larger, and smaller, than ourselves.
“Alan Lightman came to prominence in the 1990s with “Einstein’s Dreams,” a novel that drew on his expertise as a theoretical physicist and showed his gift for elegant prose. Since then, he has produced a steady stream of fiction and nonfiction that bridges science, philosophy and the humanities. His latest collection of essays, “Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings,” maintains that syncretic spirit, tackling big questions like the origin of the universe and the nature of consciousness, always in an entertaining and easily digestible way…consistently thought provoking.” – Wall Street Journal
“Galactic wonder radiates through these essays by the renowned theoretical physicist, whose writing proves companionable and illuminating.” – Christian Science Monitor
“Instead of leaving metaphysics to the poets, Lightman became one of the poets—or rather a lyrical essayist. And as he shows in his expansive new book, Probable Impossibilities,he draws much of his inspiration from the very imponderables that Feynman and his ilk wouldn’t touch . . . But while the infinite and the infinitesimal leave Pascal trembling in fear, Lightman feels awed. Indeed, he eagerly swings back and forth between those twin poles in the book, dissecting the universe on both its smallest and largest scales, from the monstrosities of quantum mechanics to the ultimate fate of the cosmos.” – American Scholar
“Classic Lightman, a mix of cutting-edge science, philosophical reflection, and storytelling that celebrates rational inquiry while respecting experiences of mystery and awe.” – Chapter 16
Three Flames portrays the struggles of a Cambodian farming family against the extreme patriarchal attitudes of their society and a cruel and dictatorial father, set in a rural community that is slowly being exposed to the modern world and its values. Ryna is a mother fighting against memories of her father’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and her powerful desire for revenge. Daughter Nita is married off at sixteen to a wandering husband, while her sister Thida is sent to the city to work in the factories to settle their father’s gambling debt. Kamal, the only son, dreams of marrying the most beautiful girl in the village and escaping the life of a farmer. Yet it will be up to Sreypov, the youngest, to bravely challenge her father and strive for a better future.
Three Flames is a vivid story of one family’s yearning for freedom and of a young girl’s courage to face down tradition.
“Lightman infuses Cambodian culture naturally among his considered dissections of pain. Readers will be moved by this collection’s navigation of deeply personal heartaches and lingering implications of war.” – Publisher’s Weekly
“Three Flames is Alan Lightman’s best book since Einstein’s Dreams. It is a piercing story of social dissolution in damaged Cambodia. The traditional patriarchal control of women here combines with the lingering hurts of the Vietnam War and the intrusion of the entrepreneurial world in a caustic mix that burns generations of a rice-farming family.” —Annie Proulx
“It is rare for a writer who is not native to a place to speak with a voice so real, honest and true. Lightman does not miss a detail, with every gesture, every word uttered, every word refrained, reminding me of my homeland. He burrows into the complexity of the Cambodian way of life, with its intricate maze of memories, dreams and ghosts and reveals an aching for love and acceptance that is universal.” – Kalyanee Mam, film maker of “A River Changes Course” (2013), which won the Grand Jury Award for International Documentary at Sundance.
“Three Flames is a beautifully observed portrait of a Cambodian family by a writer with great insight and humility. Never melodramatic or sentimental, Lightman writes about a mother grappling with a desire for revenge, a daughter sold to pay a debt, and a younger sister determined to continue her education. And, in each case, he portrays individuals––not merely the products of history or poverty.” ––Allegra Goodman
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine
As a physicist, Alan Lightman has always held a scientific view of the world. As a teenager experimenting in his own laboratory, he was impressed by the logic and materiality of a universe governed by a small number of disembodied forces and laws that decree all things in the world are material and impermanent. But one summer evening, while looking at the stars from a small boat at sea, Lightman was overcome by the overwhelming sensation that he was merging with something larger than himself—a grand and eternal unity, a hint of some- thing absolute and immaterial. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is Lightman’s exploration of these seemingly contradictory impulses. He draws on sources ranging from Saint Augustine’s conception of absolute truth to Einstein’s theory of relativity, from the unity of the once-indivisible atom to the multiplicity of subatomic particles and the recent notion of multiple universes. What he gives us is a profound inquiry into the human desire for truth and meaning, and a journey along the different paths of religion and science that become part of that quest.
“[Lightman] is the poet laureate of science writers. “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” is what we can call a grand unified intellectual narrative…a discussion of everything, a single coherent conversation that will unite the great insights of physics, philosophy, religion, biology, art, neurology and sociology.” – The Washington Post, March 30, 2018
“Each twig, ant hill or rounded stone—as well as the starry backdrop of the book’s title—serves as muse for Mr. Lightman’s speculations about the physical and metaphysical realms. The elegant and evocative prose draws in the reader, and I felt as if I were strolling alongside the author while he thought aloud. Indeed, it was a challenge to keep pace, as I repeatedly wandered off into reveries triggered by the narrative. – Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2018
“Science needs its poets, and Alan Lightman is the perfect amalgam of scientist (an astrophysicist) and humanist (a novelist who’s also a professor of the practice of humanities at M.I.T.), and his latest book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” is an elegant and moving paean to our spiritual quest for meaning in an age of science. The book consists of 20 tightly composed essays on a variety of topics (stars, atoms, truth, transcendence, death, certainty, origins and so on) with a single narrative thread running through them: the search for something deeper in the materialist worldview of the scientist.” – The New York Times Book Review, July 1, 2018
In Praise of Wasting Time
In our frenzied and hyper-connected society, we have lost the stillness so vital to creative thought, replenishment of the mind, and nourishment of our inner selves.
We are all obsessed with not wasting a minute. Especially in the West, we have created a high-speed lifestyle in which the twenty-four hours of each day are carved up into ten minute units of efficiency. And we are prisoners of the grid. We take our smartphones and laptops with jus on vacation. We check our email at restaurants and while walking in the part. When the school day ends, our children our loaded with extra activities. Yet, there is a great deal of evidence pointing to the value of “wasting time,” of unplugging from the grid, of letting the mind lie fallow for periods of time with scheduled activities or goals.
In this timely and essential book, Alan Lightman documents the rush and heave of the modern world and then explores the many benefits of “wasting time.”
It is ten minutes past six by the invisible clock on the wall. Minute by minute new objects gain form. In the dim light of morning the young patent clerk sprawls in his chair, head down on his desk. For the past several months, he has dreamed many dreams about time. His dreams have taken hold of his research. But the dreaming is finished. Out of many possible natures of time, imagined in as many nights, one seems compelling. Not that the others are impossible. The others might exist in other worlds.
The patent clerk is Albert Einstein. In his dreams he imagines new worlds, in which time can be circular, or flow backwards, or slow down at higher altitudes, or take the form of a nightingale. Einstein’s Dreams is a literary adventure, one which Salman Rushdie has compared to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
“By turns whimsical and meditative, playful and provocative, Einstein’s Dreams pulls the reader into a dream world like a powerful magnet. As in Calvino’s work, the fantastical elements of the stories are grounded in precise, crystalline prose. As in Jorge Luis Borges’s ficciones, carefully observed particulars open out, like doors in an advent calendar, to disclose a magical, metaphysical realm beyond.” — The New York Times
“a wonderully odd, clever, mystical book of mediations on time, poetically spare and delightfully fresh” — The Chicago Tribune
” [Lightman] is an artist who paints with the notion of time; he makes a delicate link between its philosophical and its existential meanings. Time weeps and laughs in the perplexed inhabitants of his fables.” — The Los Angeles Times
“a dazzling first novel…Lightman is exploring fiction’s deep space, taking us further than we are used to being taken. It is playful, poignant, intimate…cool, languid, intelligent, and quotable.” — The Sunday Times (London)
Bennet always knew he would live a life in science. From the homemade rockets and experiments of his childhood to the complex equations he solved as a professor of physics, his vision has transformed the uncertainty and frailty of life into order and beauty. But his vision betrays him, revealing a profound incompleteness, an inadequacy to confront the contradictions of his life: the black maid who raises him and loves him but cannot welcome him into her own house, the mentally absent father who wishes he’d died a hero in World War II, the high school teacher who becomes his secret lover and then abandons him, the self-destructive wife who invites Bennet’s cruelty. As Bennet struggles between reason and intuition, he slowly learns to allow the imperfections of daily life – the chaos he has worked so hard to control – to broaden his understanding of the world and his place in it.
Written with lyrical sparseness, hilarity mixed with sadness, the story of Bennet’s struggle becomes a portrait of the emotional life of a scientist and his attempt to reconcile the absolutes of science with the vagaries of human experience.
“A novel of breathtaking delicacy and grace…[written] deftly, unerringly, with dramatic force that astonishes.” — Washington Post Book World
“Mesmerizing…Lightman’s skilled literary voice keeps the reader turning the pages.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“An outstanding novel that captures the scientific mind-set to perfection…extraordinary achievement.” — New Scientist
“communicates to the lay reader the mystery and allure of physics, the thrill scientists experience in penetrating the mysteries of nature…[Lightman] is equally at home in the realm of human passions and in the rarefied world of atoms and equations.” — The New York Times
While rushing to his office one warm summer morning, Bill Chalmers, a junior executive in Boston, realizes that he cannot remember where he is going or even who he is. All he remembers is the motto of his company: “The maximum information in the minimum time.”
When Bill’s memory returns, “his head pounding, remembering too much,” a strange numbness afflicts him, beginning as a tingling in his hands and gradually spreading over the rest of his body. As he attempts to find a diagnosis of his illness, he descends into a nightmare, enduring a blizzard of medical tests and specialists without conclusive results, the manic frenzy of his company, and a desperate wife who decides that he must be imagining his deteriorating condition. Ultimately, Bill discovers that he is fighting not just for his body but also for is soul.
By turns satiric, comic, and tragic, The Diagnosis is a disturbing examination of our modern obsession with speed, information, and money, and what this obsession has done to our minds and our spirits.
“A searing vision of our helter-skelter and spiritually debilitating technocracy.” — The Chicago Tribune
“Lightman is a highly original and imaginative thinker. We realize with some alarm that Chalmers’s world is not that far removed from our own…[The Diagnosis] forcefully captures the great confluence of our times: information overload, unimaginable prosperity and spiritual bankruptcy.” — The New York Times Book Review
“A powerful critique of a barbarously accelerated society. Lightman’s understated style…gives the book gravity and lucidity, and creates an unexpectedly haunting effect.” — The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Written in austerly beautiful prose…a major accomplishment” — The Washington Post Book World
At fifty-two, Charles is a professor at a minor “leafy little college,” a once promising poet, divorced, admiring passion but without passion himself. Without knowing why, he decides to attend his thirtieth college reunion. And there he magically witnesses a replay of his last year in college.
Drawn to his past like a moth to a flame, Charles watches his tender twenty-two-year-old self embark on an all consuming love affair with a beautiful dancer. As the two young people struggle to find themselves amidst the social and political chaos of the late 1960s, the older Charles confronts for the second time a series of devastating events that will forever change his life.
At once precise and mysterious, Reunion explores the pain of self-examination, the clay-like nature of memory, and the impossible hopefulness of youth.
“elegant,…spare, charged with meaning…Reunion seeks in less eliptical fashion than Einstein’s Dreams to plumb life’s most complicated and enduring relationship: that between who one was and who one is…Reunion most powerfully explores the seductions and betrayals of young love in a way that restores significance to passion that passing time demands we shrug off.” — New York Times Book Review, July 27, 2003.
“Lightman’s prose leaps and twirls, circles his subjects and raises them up. If Degas or Manet had written prose it would read like this…Reunion is that rare thing in this age: a genuine work of art.” — Denver Post, July 20, 2003.
“Lightman’s delicate prose turns what might have been a ho-hum subject into a fascinating study.” — Washington Post Book World, August 10, 2003.
“a profoundly human story, rich in depth and nuance…Lightman writes with a lightness, a lyrical understatedness that belies the underlying depths and complexities of the novel…Reunion is the work of a great writer.” — The Globe and Mail (Toronto), August 16, 2003.
“a subtle and haunting novel…In Lightman’s hands, the act of rembrance becomes a meditation on time, loss, and the ultimate selfishness of love. His writing gets under your skin precisely because of its measured and undemonstrative tone.” — Daily Mail (London), July 11, 2003.
David is a person of modest ambitions who works in a bank, lives in a rooming house, enjoys books and quiet walks by the lake. Three months after unexpectedly being fired from his job, he takes a temporary position at a mortuary. And there, sitting alone in the “slumber room” one late afternoon, he sees something that he cannot comprehend, something that no science can explain, something that will force him to question everything he believes in, including himself. After his metaphysical experience, all his relationships change – with his estranged wife, his girlfriend, his mother — and he grudgingly finds himself at the center of a bitter public controversy over the existence of the supernatural. As David struggles to understand what has happened to him, we embark on a provocative exploration of the delicate divide between the physical world and the spiritual world, between skepticism and faith, between the natural and the supernatural, and between science and religion.
Combining a dramatic story with compelling characters and provocative ideas, Ghost explores timeless questions that continue to challenge contemporary society.
“Ghost doubtless will be read as a kind of metaphor for our contemporary faith/reason contention, but Lightman has infused his characters with too much humane specificity to yield solely to topicality. This is a fine and deeply thoughtful fiction.” – The Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2007.
“highly nuanced and persuasive…Lightman’s touch is understated” – Chicago Sun Times, November 4, 2007.
“His description of an annual meeting of ‘truth seekers’ is a brilliant piece of satire…Beneath the comedy, though, one senses Lightman’s sympathy with that deep human desire for transcendence” – Washington Post, October 28, 2007.
“elegant…understated and beautiful…Lightman cleverly navigates a precarious line between science and belief” – Nature, October 25, 2007.
“the story of what David has seen…is powerful. David is a sad man, a specter himself, and Lightman draws him expertly” – The Boston Globe, November 26, 2007.
Song of Two Worlds
In this book-length narrative poem, we meet a man who has lost his faith in all things following a mysterious personal tragedy. After decades of living “hung like a dried fly,” emptied and haunted by his past, the narrator awakens one morning revitalized and begins a Dante-like journey to find something to believe in, first turning to the world of science and then to the world of philosophy, religion, and human life. As his story is slowly revealed, little by little, we confront the great questions of the cosmos and of the human heart, some questions with answers and others without.
“Only Alan Lightman could have written this verse narrative that brings together his explorations in the worlds of science, art, and philosophy and makes of them this strange and mysterious but seamless and beguiling whole.” — Anita Desai, author of In Custody and two-time finalist for the Booker Prize.
“Here is a book that is the world, put into knowledgable, poetic lanaguage for us to read. An extraordinary achievement.” – Alberto Manguel, author of The History of Reading and winner of the Prix Medicis.
“Alan Lightman sheds rare light on the wondrous meeting ground of poetry and science in this book-length poem. In our hands comes a true gift, a lyric and absorbing journey through the universe and the mind of a man as attuned to its mysteries as to its beauty.” – Roald Hoffmann, author of Chemistry Imagined and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.”
So begins Alan Lightman’s playful and profound new novel, Mr g, the story of Creation as told by God. Barraged by the constant advisements and bickerings of Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, who live with their Nephew in the shimmering Void, Mr g proceeds to create time, space, and matter. Then come stars, planets, animate matter, consciousness, and finally intelligent beings with moral dilemmas. Mr g is all powerful but not all knowing and does much of his invention by trial and error.
Even the best-laid plans can go awry, and Mr g discovers that with his creation of space and time come some unforeseen consequences—especially in the form of the mysterious Belhor, a clever and devious rival. An intellectual equal to Mr g, Belhor delights in provoking him: Belhor demands an explanation for the inexplicable, requests that the newly creatred intelligent creatures not be subject to rational laws, and maintains the necessity of evil. As Mr g watches his favorite universe grow into maturity, he begins to understand how the act of creation can change himself, the Creator.
“Here is the creation of the Universe and the young Creator who grapples with what he has made–and ultimately with responsibility and loss…a gem of a novel that is strange witty erudite and alive with Lightman’s playful genius.” — Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-Prize winner and author of The Brief Life of Oscar Wao.
“It would not seem possible for Alan Lightman to match his earlier tour de force, Einstein’s Dreams, but in Mr g he has done so – with wit, imagination and transcendent beauty.” — Anita Desai, Booker Prize finalist and author of In Custody.
“Just as he did with his incomparable Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman again surprises us with a work that is utterly original in both form and content. Mr g is a philosophical fable which is at turns hilarious and moving, rendered with a literary hand so deft that the weightiest metaphysical topics levitate into pure delight.” — Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Prize winner and author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.
Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe
Essays on the human side of science. By means of humorous anecdotes, fantasies, personal memory, parables, and scientific discussion, this book examines the artistic and imaginative aspects of the world of science. Essays include: “Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe,” a meditation on the possibilities of time travel brought on by smoking his great grandfather’s pipe; “Relativity for the Table,” a discussion of Einstein’s theory of relativity suitable for the dining room table; “Pas De Deux,” an accounting of the laws of physics that a ballerina makes use of during her dance, presented as a pas de deux dance between the ballerina and nature; “A Visit by Mr. Newton,” an imagined visit by Newton as a satire on the increasing specialization of science; “If Birds Can Fly, Why Oh Why Can’t I?” a light-hearted but scientifically accurate musing on the biological and physical requirements for animal-powered flight, and others.
“Essays collected in a volume too small for the taste they build up in the reader.” — Toronto Star (Canada)
“The charming and cheerful essays in this collection show us the creative – even the whimsical – aspects of science.” — The Boston Globe
“A poetic touch and a consistently graceful style.” — Milwaukee Journal
“This is a pleasant look at science from a warm storyteller’s point of view. It also contains some of the clearest explanations one is likely to find of involved astrophysical concepts.” — Sacramento Bee
A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court
As in Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe, essays on the human side of science. By means of humorous anecdotes, fantasies, personal memory, parables, and scientific discussion, this book examines the artistic and imaginative aspects of the world of science. Essays include: “Smile,” a biological and chemical analysis of the first romantic meeting between a man and a woman, exploring the limits of science; “A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court,” a spoof on how little about technology the average person knows; “A Flash of Light,” a comic account of the difference between experimentalists and theorists; “To Cleave and Atom,” a history of the discovery of nuclear fission and the atomic bomb, with clear scientific explanations, and others.
“Lightman communicates the beauty, mystery, elegance, danger, fulfillment, frustration, irony, and potential of science. And he shares his own sense of wonder and joy at looking clear-eyed at the natural world.” — The Chicago Tribune
“deft, wise, personal analysis of science…pointed and savvy with a light touch.” — The Washington Post
“Throughout his yarns and reflections…Mr. Lightman marvels at our intellectual bravado and the potency of the human mind…He leads a storyteller’s tour of theoretical physics.” — The New York Times
“Alan Lightman is a working theoretical astrophysicist with a flair for informal and easy-to-read prose over an unusual range of stances and forms.” — Scientific American
Dance for Two
More essays on the human side of science, a compilation of the best essays in Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe and A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court, plus some new essays. New essays include: “Progress,” about the unexamined notion that more and more technology equals progress; and “Seasons,” an account of the author’s senior year in college, in which he realized that science would not protect him from a world filled with uncertainties.
“a charming collection…[Lightman] may well have been a klutz in the lab…but his experiments in language certainly succeed, particularly his description in “To Cleave and Atom” of a nuclear chain reaction as resembling a roomful of cocked mousetraps and bouncing Ping-Pong balls.” — The New York Times
“Lightman is a master at making the complex clear…his prose…has the elegance of fine china and the pacing and rhythm of poetry ” — The Boston Sunday Globe
“Lightman’s approach makes previously opaque concepts seem clear as spring water” — The Irish Times
Best American Essays 2000
The venerable annual anthology published by Houghton Mifflin. Essays by Andre Aciman, Wendell Berry, Edwidge Danticat, Mary Gordon, Cynthia Ozick, Peter Singer, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. Selected and introduced by Lightman.
From the introduction: “For me the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either. When you care about something, you continually grapple with it, because it is alive in you. It thrashes and moves, like all living things.”
“When I’m reading a good essay, I feel that I’m going on a journey. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unravelling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observations and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move. Even the facts of the essayist’s own history, the personal memoir, are insufficient alone. The facts of personal history provide anchor, but the essayist then swings in a wide arc on his anchor line, testing and pulling hard.”
Alan Lightman’s grandfather M.A. Lightman was the family’s undisputed patriarch: it was his movie theater empire that catapulted the Lightmans to prominence in the South, his fearless success that both galvanized and paralyzed his children and grandchildren. In this moving, impressionistic memoir, the author chronicles his return to Memphis in an attempt to understand the origins he so eagerly left behind forty years earlier. As aging uncles and aunts begin telling family stories, Lightman rediscovers his southern roots and slowly recognizes the errors in his perceptions of both his grandfather and his father, who was himself crushed by M.A. The result is an unforgettable family saga that extends from 1880 to the present, set against a throbbing century of Memphis—the rhythm and blues, the barbecue and pecan pie, the segregated society—and including personal encounters with Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr., and E. H. “Boss” Crump. At the heart of it all is a family haunted by the memory of its domineering patriarch and the author’s struggle to understand his conflicted loyalties.
“Screening Room” — the latest book from the author of “Einstein’s Dreams,” violates most of the tedious conventions of the memoir genre. The book is brilliantly observed and poignantly written…Lightman’s bluff, candid prose turns little moments from the past into fresh, emotionally harrowing history. The women “sweating under the blow dryers” and gossiping “about inadequate husbands, sassy children, and bathing suits,” while the men at the country club “sat around naked in their locker room, the mirrors steamy from hot showers.” These were the days when Morris Kahn could stumble into a car drunk with Missy Nelkin, with both claiming that neither realized the other person was not their spouse: “No one knows what happened next, but neither party contacted the outside world for over an hour.” The real South of Lightman’s youth comes to life on page after page. — The Washington Post
In this sensual evocation of the past, Lightman, a physicist and novelist, shines a lush and tender light on his family’s storied past, which includes encounters with Elvis Presley, Marlene Dietrich, and the infamous racist Edward (Boss) Crump. . . . It is when Lightman reckons with the irreconcilable — the things unsaid, the questions not answered — that the memoir ascends to a state of grace. — The New York Times Book Review
The scenes between father and son, particularly one in which Richard makes a wrenching confession, are painfully effective in their depiction of the hopeless yearning to be understood that often exists between parents and adult children….Screening Room deftly blends fact and fiction to achieve a fluid narrative and to convey emotional truth; reading with an eye to separating the two is bound to diminish the hypnotic power of Lightman’s storytelling. — Chapter 16
A Sense of the Mysterious
Alan Lightman has lived in the dual worlds of science and art for much of his life. In these essays, the two worlds meet. Here, Lightman records his personal struggles to reconcile certainty with uncertainty, logic with intuition, questions with answers and questions without. Lightman explores the emotional life of science, the power of metaphor and imagination in science, the creative moment, the different uses of language in science and in literature, and the alternate ways in which scientists and humanists think about the world. Included are in depth portraits of some of the great scientist of our time: Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and Vera Rubin. Rather than finding a forbidding gulf between the two cultures, as did C.P. Snow fifty years ago, Lightman discovers complementary ways of looking at the world, both part of being human.
“There is no better gift for a young, aspiring scientist than this little book of 11 essays, or for that matter for any nonscientist who wants to know what it feels like to be a scientist… [Lightman] is a scientist who is a humanist in the noblest sense of the word.” — The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“few physicists have demonstrated that rare ability to render their abstruse discipline comprehensible to the reasonably intelligent layperson, and Lightman can be counted among the fewer still who can do so with panache.” — The San Francisco Chronicle
“a great introduction to his work and pure pleasure for fans.” — New Scientist
“[Lightman’s] love and respect for both science and art permeate these luminous essays.” — The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Lightman is…a scientist in love with words, one who can write clearly and appealingly about his subject for a lay readership.” — The New York Times Book Review
The Accidental Universe
Seven essays about the social, philosophical, theological, and psychological impact of modern discoveries and ideas in science – with titles, “The Accidental Universe,” “The Temporary Universe,” “The Spiritual Universe,” “The Symmetrical Universe,” “The Lawful Universe,” “The Gargantuan Universe,” and “The Disembodied Universe.”
“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.” — The Boston Globe
“Some of what Lightman writes about imn “The Accidental Universe” could be called philosophical or metaphysical and some of it verges on the poetic, but whatever the subject, he writes with a limpid serenity and frankness that feels as fresh and as clarifying as a spring rain.” — Salon
Alan Lightman might be the only writer who can dance through not just one but seven universes in a book not much larger than a human hand. In the seven deceptively weightless essays of The Accidental Universe, the novelist and theoretical physicist touches on mortality, symmetry, string theory, religion, dark energy, rationality, scientific history and a range of the unquestioned assumptions humans make ‘n this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons.’” — The Columbus Dispatch
“All the essays in The Accidental Universe are carefully argued, and there is not a shrill or dogmatic line in any of them. They’re enlivened by Lightman’s precise, graceful prose and a novelist’s skill for conjuring scenes and characters: the messy MIT office of Alan Guth, where the noted physicist “chain-drinks” Diet Cokes, or the dinner where a group of young women ‘kept their iPhones next to their plates, like miniature oxygen tanks carried everywhere by emphysema patients.’ — Chapter 11
Problem Book in Relativity and Gravitation
A graduate-level textbook for physics students. Contains 475 problems, with solutions, in the fields of special relativity, general relativity, astrophysics, and cosmology. The problems are expressed in broad physical terms to enhance their relevance to readers with broad scientific backgrounds. Written while the four authors were graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the California Institute of Technology. For over 25 years, the book has continued to be used widely by physics students and faculty.
When the book first came out, in 1975, John A. Wheeler of Princeton University wrote: “This work is full of interesting problems, arranged by subject and graded by difficulty. It is full of intellectual content, and it is much more than modern pedagogy. It is modern physics, much of it at the frontiers, done in modern ways.”
Radiative Processes in Astrophysics
An advanced undergraduate and first-year-graduate-level textbook for physics and astrophysics students. Starting with fundamenal principles of physics, this book gives an introduction to radiative transfer, blackbody radiation, bremsstralung radiation, synchrotron radiation, Compton scattering, atomic transitions, and some plasma physics. Applications are given in problems with solutions. Published in 1979, this book remains in wide use.
An introduction to modern cosmology for the general reader. Beginning with a short history of early cosmologies, the book moves to the birth of modern cosmology with Einstein’s work in 1917, a discussion of the Big Bang model, alternative cosmologies such as Steady State and the Oscillating Universe, problems with the Big Bang model (such as the horizon problem and the flatness problem), observations of large-scale structure, dark matter, the role of instruments and technologies, initial conditions and quantum cosmology, the introduction of particle physics into cosmological theory, the Inflationary Universe model, and the Anthropic Principle. Equal emphasis is placed upon observations and theory in modern cosmological thinking. Includes photographs and short biographical sketches of leading cosmologists. Does not include developments after 1991.
“A charming, lucid, and accessible book that is the epitome of good popular science. I have read no finer introduction to cosmology.” — New Scientist
“Lightman seeks to mediate between the worlds of modern cosmology and ordinary perception outside its strange precincts – explaining its major theories in simplified terms…One senses in Ancient Light Alan Lightman’s respect for the tiny wondering human mind, whatever its ability to grasp the conundrums of modern cosmology.” — Sunday Boston Globe
Time for the Stars
Based on the report of the 1990 National Academy of Science’s Astronomy Survey Committee, this book is an introduction to modern astronomy, with emphasis on new instruments recommended for the future. Topics covered include planets and stars, galaxies, and cosmology. Portraits of leading contemporary astronomers.
Fascinating and eminently readable…Like Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, Lightman makes science not only digestible but entertaining to the layperson…Despite its brevity, Time for the Stars provides a wealth of background on the historical and philosophical underpinnings of modern cosmology…To read this book is to marvel at how astronomers — limited as they are to observations and extrapolations — have figured out as much as they have about the universe. — Memphis Commercial Appeal
“Lightman’s tone is that of an amiable observatory tour-guide, one who tells less than he knows because he wants visitors to absorb the grandeur first.” — Publisher’s Weekly
Great Ideas in Physics
An interdisciplinary book on four great ideas in physics: the conservation of energy, the second law of thermodynamics, the relativity of time, and the wave-particle (quantum) nature of reality. The influence of these ideas goes far beyond science. They permeate all aspects of modern culture, from the arts to the social sciences, to politics and philosophy. This book clearly explains each of the four ideas in scientific terms and then explores the two-way influences of the ideas on the arts and humanities through extended excerpts from the writings of scientists, novelists, artists, social theorists, philosophers, and historians.
Katherine Hayles, professor of English at University of Iowa, remaked that “The two great virtues of Great Ideas in Physics are its tightly controlled focus and accessibility. I do not know of any other liberal arts physics text exactly like this one. The closest analogue in my experience is Hofstader’s Godel, Escher, and Bach.”
Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists
In extended interviews with 27 leading cosmologists about their science, their childhood, their influences, their belief systems, and their religious views, Origins explores the personal and philosophical factors that enter into the scientific process. This anthology is unique. The book begins with an introduction to modern cosmology, then ranges over all contemporary issues. Interviewees include Fred Hoyle, Allan Sandage, Gerard de Vaucouleurs, Maarten Schmidt, Wallace Sargent, Dennis Sciama, Martin Rees, Robert Wagoner, Joseph Silk, Robert Dicke, James Peebles, Charles Misner, James Gunn, Jeremiah Ostriker, Vera Rubin, Edwin Turner, Sandra Faber, Marc Davis, Margaret Geller, John Huchra, Stephen Hawking, Don Page, Roger Penrose, David Schramm, Steven Weinberg, Alan Guth, and Andrei Linde.
“There is no better way to understand the current confusions of the world’s top cosmologists than by reading this timely and admirable anthology.” — The Washington Post Book World
“The interviews are exceptionally readable and informative while retaining the flavor of each scientist’s personality and attitudes.” — The New York Review of Books
“If you are willing to tag along for the odd turns into blind alleys and to back up again looking for the main path, a wonderful two-pronged story starts to emerge. Half of it is the story of our horizon’s being pushed out to the very edges of the universe…The other half is far more sober: the story of the scientific community…caught at a moment when its theories are in a terrible, uncertain flux.” — The Atlantic
“vigorous, often dissenting voices heard in this now revelatory, now mind-boggling book” — Boston Phoenix
The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th – Century Science
During the last century, an explosion of creativity and insight led to discoveries in every field of science. From the theory of relativity to the first quantum model of the atom to the mapping of the structure of DNA, these discoveries profoundly changed how we understand the world and our place in it. The Discoveries tells the stories of two dozen such discoveries, using LightmanÕs unique background as a scientist and novelist.
Lightman outlines the intellectual and emotional landscape of each discovery, portrays the personalities and human dramas of the scientists involved, and explains the significance and impact of the work. In doing so, he explores such questions as how do scientists think, whether there are common patterns of discovery, the nature of creativity in science, which discoveries are accidental and which intentional, and whether the scientists are aware of the significance of what they have discovered. Finally, Lightman gives an exhilarating tour through each of the original discovery papers. In their own words, here are Einstein, Bohr, McClintock, and Pauling, grappling with the nature of the world. The Discoveries is an exploration into the process of scientific discovery and into the minds of the men and women who do it.
“Writing with his signature clarity, warmth, and sense of wonder, Lightman introduces each landmark work with a crystalline essay elucidating the personality and life of each scientist and the significance of that scientist’s paradigm-altering discovery.” – Booklist, October 15, 2005
“deeply satisfying…masterly…Lightman does an admirable job of guiding us through…” — Washington Post Book World, November 21, 2005
“Lightman…puts his formidable storytelling powers to best use when exploring the personal lives of scientists that run parallel to their discoveries.” – Globe and Mail (Canada), January 14, 2006
“careful and wonderfully lucid discussions…a brilliantly guided tour through the human and scientific processes of unveiling nature at a remove from the constraints of our immediate senses.” — Santa Barbara News-Press, November 27, 2005
“Lightman’s introductions to the discoveries are, collectively, an outstanding primer on the development of science in the twentieth century.” — The Nation, April 3, 2006.
“Lightman’s map of 20th century science beautifully conveys the human drama of discovery.” – American Scientist, March-April 2006.
Scientific Research Publications in Physics And Astronomy
“A Model-Independent Calculation of the Alpha and Beta Stability of Superheavy Nuclei” (with W. J.Gerace), Physics Letters, vol. 30, pg. 526 (1969)
“Gravitational-Wave Observations as a Tool for Testing Relativistic Gravity” (with D. M. Eardley, D. L. Lee, R. V. Wagoner, and C. M. Will), Physical Review Letters, vol. 30, pg. 884 (1973)
“Foundations for a Theory of Gravitation Theories” (with K. S.Thorne, and D. L. Lee), Physical Review D, vol. 7, pg.3563 (1973)
“Analysis of the Belinfante-Swihart Theory of Gravity” (with D. L. Lee), Physical Review D, vol. 7, pg. 3578 (1973)
“Restricted Proof That the Weak Equivalence Principle Implies the Einstein Equivalence Principle” (with D. L. Lee), Physical Review D, vol. 8, pg. 364 (1973)
“A New Two-Metric Theory of Gravity With Prior Geometry”(with D. L. Lee), Physical Review D, vol. 8, pg. 3293(1973)
“Gravitational-Wave Observations as a Tool for Testing Relativistic Gravity” (with D. M. Eardley and D. L. Lee),Physical Review D, vol. 8, pg. 3308 (1973)
“Black Holes in Binary Systems: Instability of Disk Accretion” (with D. M. Eardley), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 187, pg. L1 (1974)
“Conservation Laws and Variational Principles in Metric Theories of Gravity” (with D. L. Lee and W.T. Ni), Physical Review D, vol. 10, pg. 1685 (1974)
“Time-Dependent Accretion Disks Around Compact Stars.I. Theory and Basic Equations,” Astrophysical Journal,Vol. 194, pg. 419 (1974)
“Time-Dependent Accretion Disks Around Compact Stars.II. Numerical Models and Instability of Inner Region,”Astrophysical Journal, vol. 194, pg. 429 (1974)
“Magnetic Viscosity in Relativistic Accretion Disks”(with D. M.Eardley), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 200, pg. 187 (1975)
“Spectrum and Polarization of X-Rays from Accretion Disks Around Black Holes” (with S. L. Shapiro), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 198, pg. L73 (1975)
“Cygnus X-1: A Two-Temperature Accretion Disk Model Which Explains the Observed Hard X-Ray Spectrum” (with D. M. Eardley and S. L. Shapiro), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 199, pg.L153 (1975)
“A Two-Temperature Accretion Disk Model for Cygnus X-1:Structure and Spectrum” (with S. L. Shapiro and D. M. Eardley), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 204, pg. 187 (1976
“Polarization of X-Rays from Cygnus X-1 and a Test of the Accretion Disk Model” (with S. L. Shapiro),Astrophysical Journal, vol. 203, pg. 701 (1976)
“Black Holes in X-Ray Binaries: Marginal Existence and Rotation Reversals of Accretion Disks” (with S. L. Shapiro),Astrophysical Journal, vol. 204, pg. 555 (1976)
“Rapidly Rotating Post-Newtonian Neutron Stars” (with S. L.Shapiro), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 207, pg. 263 (1976)
“Inverse Compton Spectra and the Spectrum of Cygnus X-1″(with D. M. Eardley), Nature, vol. 262, pg. 196(1976)
“The Distribution of Stars Around a Massive Black Hole”(with S. L. Shapiro), Nature, vol. 262, pg. 743(1976)
“On Diffusion Timescales in N-Body Systems in Dynamic Equilibrium” (with S. L. Shapiro), available as Cornell Preprint CRSR 630 (1976)
“The Distribution and Consumption Rate of Stars Around a Massive Collapsed Object” (with S. L.Shapiro), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 211, pg. 244 (1977)
“Enhancement of the Gravothermal Catastrophe in Two-Component Isothermal Spheres,” Astrophysical Journal,Vol. 215, pg. 914 (1977)
“Present and Past Death Rates for Globular Clusters” (with W. H. Press and S. F. Odenwald), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 219,pg. 629 (1978)
“Accretion onto Compact Objects” (with M. J. Rees and S. L. Shapiro), in Physics and Astrophysics of Neutron Stars and Black Holes, ed R. Giacconi and R.Ruffini (New York: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1978)
“The Dynamical Evolution of Globular Clusters” (with S. L. Shapiro), Reviews of Modern Physics, vol. 50,pg. 437 (1978)
“An Approximate Theory for the Core Collapse of Two-Component Gravitation Systems” (with S. M.Fall), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 221, pg. 567 (1978)
“Possible Role of Collective Relaxation in Galaxy Correlations” (with W. H. Press), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 219, pg. L73 (l978)
“A Status Report on Cygnus X-1” (with D. M. Eardley,N. I. Shakura, S. L. Shapiro, and R. A.Sunyaev), Comments on Astrophysics, vol. 7, pg. 151 (1978)
“Time Evolution of Galaxy Correlations in a Model for Gravitational Instability” (with W. H.Press), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 225, pg. 677 (1978)
“Accretion Disks Around Massive Black Holes: Persistent Emission Spectra” (with D. M. Eardley, D. G. Payne, and S. L. Shapiro), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 224, pg. 53 (1978)
“Rapid X-Ray Variability in NGC 4151: A Thermal Model and Constraints on a Central Black Hole” (with R.Giacconi and H. Tananbaum), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 224, pg. 375 (1978)
“Energy Transfer in Gravitating Systems” (with N. L. DaCosta),Astrophysical Journal, vol. 228, pg. 543 (1979)
“X-Rays From Active Galactic Nuclei: Inverse Compton Reflection” (with G. B. Rybicki), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 229, pg. L15 (1979)
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“A New Statistical Test with Application to X-Ray Sources in Globular Clusters” (with P. Hertz and J. E.Grindlay), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 241, pg. 367 (1980)
“Double Compton Emission in Radiation-Dominated Thermal Plasmas,” Astrophysical Journal, vol. 244, pg. 392 (1981)
“Comptonization by Cold Electrons” (with D. Q. Lamb and G. B. Rybicki), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 248, pg. 738 (1981)
“Luminosity Evolution of Quasars and Active Galaxies: Theoretical Models of the Evolving Mass Supply Rate”(with S. L. W. McMillan and H. Cohn), Astrophysical Journal,vol. 251, pg. 436 (1981)
“Relativistic Thermal Plasmas: Radiation Mechanisms” (with D. L. Band), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 251, pg. 713 (1981)
“The X-Ray Structure of Centaurus A” (with E. D. Feigelson, E. J.Schreier, J. P. Delvaille, R. Giacconi, and J. E. Grindlay),Astrophysical Journal, vol. 251, pg. 31 (1981)
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“X-Ray Illumination of Globular Cluster Puzzles” (with J. E. Grindlay), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 262, pg. 145 (1982)
“What’s Happening in the Cores of Globular Clusters?,” Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 263, pg. L19 (1982)
“Relativistic Thermal Plasmas: Effects of Magnetic Fields”(with S. Araki), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 269, pg. 49 (1983)
“Fundamental Processes in Pair Plasmas,” in Electron-Positron Pairs in Astrophysics, ed.M. Burns, A. Harding, and R. Ramaty, (New York: American Institute of Physics, 1983)
“Dependence of Macrophysical Phenomena on the Values of the Fundamental Constants” (with W.H. Press),Philosophical Transactions Royal Society (London) vol. A 310, pg. 323 (1984)
“A Fundamental Determination of the Planetary Day and Year,”American Journal Physics, vol. 52, pg. 211 (1984)
“A Unified N-Body and Statistical Treatment of Stellar Dynamics: I. The Hybrid Code” (with S.L.W. McMillan), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 283, pg. 801 (1984)
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“Determination of Masses of Globular Cluster X-Ray Sources” (with J.E. Grindlay, P. Hertz, J.E. Steiner, S.S. Murray),Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 282, pf. L13, (1984)
“A Unified N-Body and Statistical Treatment of Stellar Dynamics” (with S.L.W. McMillan), IAU Symposium 113, Dynamics of Star Custers, ed. P. Hut,Dordrecht (1985)
“Nonthermal Electron-Positron Pair Production and the Universal’X-Ray Spectrum of Active Galactic Nulcei”(with A. A. Zdziarski), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 294, pg. l79 (1985)
“Effects of Electron-Positron Pair Opacity for Spherical Accretion onto Black Holes” (with A. A. Zdziarski and M. J. Rees), Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 315, pg. L113 (1987)
“Pair Production and Compton Scattering in Compact Sources and Comparison to Observations of Active Galactic Nuclei” (with A. A. Zdziarski), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 319, pg. 643 (1987)
“Relativistic Plasmas in Active Galactic Nuclei” (with A. A. Zdziarski), in Proceedings of Conference on Variability of Galactic and Extragalactic X-Ray Sources, ed. Aldo Treves (Associazione per L’Avanzaneto Dell’Astronomia, Milan, 1987), p. 121
“Relativistic Plasmas,”Advances in Space Research, vol. 8, pg. 547 (1988)
“Compton Reflection of Gamma-Rays by Cold Electrons,” (with T.R. White and A.A. Zdziarksi), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 331, pg. 939 (1988)
“Effects of Cold Matter in AGN: Broad Shoulders in the X-ray Spectra,” (with T.R. White), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 335, pg. 57 (1988)
“Surfaces of Constant Redshift in an Inflationary Universe,” (with W.H. Press), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 337, pg. 598 (1989)
“Hot Accretion Disks with Electron Positron Pairs,” (with T.R. White), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 340, pg. 1024 (1989)
“Instabilities and Time Evolution of Hot Accretion Disks with Electron-Positron Pairs,” (with T.R. White),Astrophysical Journal, vol. 352, pg. 495 (1990)
“The Omega Dependence of Peculiar Velocities Induced by Spherical Density Perturbations,” (with P.Schechter) Astrophysical Journal Supplement, vol. 74, pg. 831 (1990)