Cover image for Searching for stars on an island in Maine / Alan Lightman.
Searching for stars on an island in Maine / Alan Lightman.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2018]
Physical Description:
viii, 226 pages ; 20 cm
Cave -- longing for absolutes in a relative world -- Material -- Hummingbird -- Stars -- Atoms -- Ants -- Monk -- Truth -- Transcendence -- Laws -- Doctrine -- Motion -- Centeredness -- Death -- Certainty -- Orgins -- Ants (2) -- Multiverse -- Humans.
Presents a lyrical meditation on religion and science as they relate to the human yearning for permanence and certainty in spite of discoveries that prove the world's impermanent and uncertain nature.


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523.1 LIG Book Adult General Collection

On Order



From the acclaimed author of Einstein's Dreams, here is an inspires, lyrical meditation on religion and science that explores the tension between our yearning for permanence and certainty, and the modern scientific discoveries that demonstrate the impermanent and uncertain nature of the world.

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 something 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.

Author Notes

ALAN LIGHTMAN-- who worked for many years as a theoretical physicist--is the author of six novels, including the international best seller Einstein's Dreams, as well as The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir, three collections of essays, and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Salon, and Nature, among other publications. He has taught at Harvard and at MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He is currently professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He lives in the Boston area.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Novelist and physicist Lightman (The Accidental Universe) mesmerizes in this collection of essays that explores the connections between scientific ideas and the wider world. He sets his stage neatly, with an evocative memory of gazing up at the starry night sky while in a little boat drifting near a small island off the coast of Maine. There he found himself "falling into infinity" as he gazed into the cosmos: "I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute." Absolutes, Lightman writes, are comforting because they allow humans to "imagine perfection." This idea echoes in essays that focus on such topics as ants, stars, death, and truth. Lightman discusses the big bang, prehistoric cave paintings, the nature of humanity, and more as he moves lithely from Galileo to van Gogh, Einstein to Emily Dickinson, and St. Augustine to Arctic explorer Robert Peary. More philosophy of science than hard science, this is a volume meant for savoring, for readerly ruminations, for thinking about and exploring one essay at a time. Lightman's illuminating language and crisp imagery aim to ignite a sense of wonder in any reader who's ever pondered the universe, our world, and the nature of human consciousness. Agents: Jane Gelfman and Deborah Schneider, ICM Partners. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

in 1801, Samuel Taylor Coleridge calculated the impact ratio of scientists to poets like this: "The souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton." Defending his 1820 poem "Lamia," John Keats growled that Isaac Newton had "destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism," lamenting that natural philosophy (in other words, science) will, as his poem put it, "unweave a rainbow." Does a scientific understanding of the world erase its emotional impact or spiritual power? Of course not. Science and spirituality are complementary, not conflicting. The physicist Richard Feynman reflected on this in a 1981 BBC interview, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out," recalling a conversation with an artist about appreciating a flower: "The beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe.... At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.... The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower." Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one's place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. I call this sciencuality, a neologism that echoes the sensuality of discovery. "Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us," the astronomer Carl Sagan declared, waxing poetic in the opening scene of his documentary series "Cosmos," one of the most spiritual expressions of science ever produced. "There is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries." 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. Take death. "For a materialist," Lightman writes, "death is the name that we give to a collection of atoms that once had the special arrangement of a functioning neuronal network and now no longer does so." But this is unsatisfying. Of his parents, Lightman wonders: "Where are they now, my deceased mother and father? I know the materialist explanation, but that does nothing to relieve my longing for them, or the impossible truth that they do not exist." Lightman doesn't fear death. "Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of life. I'll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain on Lute Island." Lute Island, Maine, is where Lightman's journey begins. On a clear moonless night in a tiny motorboat on his way to this summer retreat, sensing something special about the moment, he turned off the running lights and engine, lay down on his back to take in the ocean of stars, and let himself go. "The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I'd not experienced before." Mystics and meditators aim for this sense of oneness with the universe, but Lightman's just happened. "I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time - extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die - seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute." When he returned to an awareness of his body and boat, he "had no idea how long I'd been lying there." What is a scientist to make of such mystical experiences? Lightman begins with absolutes, "ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred." Absolutes "refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives." Absolutes go beyond science and are "rooted in personal experience, but they involve beliefs beyond that experience." The problem, he admits, is that "the tenets of the absolutes" can't be proved, "certainly not in the way that science has proven the existence of atoms," so we are left with internal truths, those that are by definition out of the realm of science, to be understood solely through experience. And then there's faith. What Lightman calls the central doctrine of science - that "all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws hold true at every time and place in the universe" - is an article of faith because "it cannot be proved." It "must simply be accepted." In support of this, he cites no less a luminary than Albert Einstein, who "believed in a beautiful and mysterious order underlying the world." Ultimately, scientists must convince other scientists that their theory of the absolute is true (or at least not false), and to do so they must leave the mystical realm of personal experience and return to the lab. But Lightman's aim in this insightful and provocative musing is to remind us of the centrality of subjectivity in all human endeavors, including those of science. ? Michael SHERMER is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnistfor Scientific American and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is "Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia."

Library Journal Review

Physicist, award-winning essayist, best-selling author, and current MIT humanities professor, Lightman (The Accidental Universe) contemplates the universe and the view from his vacation home in Maine. He weaves the writings of poets, scientists, and religious scholars as he explores the boundaries of the known (and unknown) world. As he looks to the future, he considers technology's role in the evolution and understanding of human nature. In particular, Lightman considers the debate between mechanists and vitalists, and between free will and determinism. He also compares Saint Augustine's writings on certainty to recent research on neural networks, as well as Isaac Newton's clockwork universe to modern quantum mechanics, connecting past modes of thinking to the present. Lightman's artful and questioning narrative style easily conveys complex concepts from physics to philosophy. VERDICT Recommended for serious but also curious nonfiction readers who enjoy the interplay of big ideas and theories. Both believers and nonbelievers will find much to ponder in this discussion of science and religion, which reads like a soothing meditation.-Catherine Lantz, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



For many years my wife and I have spent our summers on an island in Maine. It's a small island, only about thirty acres in size, and there are no bridges or ferries connecting it to the mainland. Consequently, each of the six families who live on the island has their own boat. Some of us were not nautical people at first, but over the years we have all learned by necessity. Most challenging are trips to the island at night, when the land masses are only dim shapes in the distance and you must rely on compass headings or faint beacons to avoid crashing into rocks or losing your way. Nevertheless, some of us do attempt the crossing at night.         My story concerns a particular summer night, in the wee hours, when I had just rounded the south end of the island and was carefully motoring toward my dock. No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I'd not experienced before. Perhaps a sensation experienced by the ancients at Font-de-Gaume. I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time--extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die--seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I'd been lying there looking up.         I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I'd read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.         Yet after my experience in that boat many years later, I understood what Lord Indra of the Vedas must have felt when he first drank soma and could see the light of the gods. I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes--ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world. .  .  .  Belief in various Absolutes is alive and well in the world today. A new survey of 35,000 adults by the Pew Research Center found that 89 percent of Americans believe in God, and 74 percent believe in life after death--that is, in some form of immortality. A somewhat older survey by the Barna Group, an organization devoted to religion and culture, found that 50 percent of Christians in America believe in some form of absolute truth, while 25 percent of non-Christians do so. Buddhists worldwide believe in the Four Noble Truths. Hindus worship Brahman, the embodiment of eternal and absolute truth. Belief in certain physical manifestations of the Absolutes is also alive and well. A 2014 Gallup survey found that 42 percent of Americans believe in the constancy of species--in particular, that humans were created in their present form in the first days of the planet. .  .  .  In the last couple of centuries and especially in recent decades, many of the Absolutes have been challenged by discoveries in science. Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.   .  .  . In recent years, I've gotten to know a prominent Buddhist monk in Cambodia by the name of Yos Hut Khemacaro. His friends call him Khema. He was born in 1948 in a little farming village in the province of Prey Veng and went to a primary school there administered by monks. At the age of ten, as he now vividly recalls, he was "attracted to learn wisdom" and began studying Buddhism. Eventually he was ordained a monk himself. In 1973, Khema started working with the United Nations on human rights, in Australia and Thailand. After the devastation of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid to late 1970s, during which monks were targeted along with all educated people, Khema returned to Cambodia and played a major role in rebuilding the Buddhist monkhood there.         I visited Khema one warm day in January at Wat Lanka, his monastery on a busy avenue in Phnom Penh. I was hoping that he might help me fathom my communion with the stars that summer night in Maine and other experiences I'd not understood. Buddhism embodies an interesting mix of beliefs. The Four Noble Truths would appear to reside within the realm of the Absolutes, while the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is a Relative.         Wat Lanka is a large temple complex containing several pagodas, patios and walkways, and living quarters for some two hundred monks. The magnificent front gate rises forty feet high and is guarded by stone lions on both sides. As soon as you step through that arched edifice, you leave behind the steady drone of motors and the shouting of street sellers--and enter a realm of serenity. Slowly, I walked past the gold-leaf pagodas. I passed obelisk-like stone stupas and scattered stone pots filled with red and pink bougainvillea. I passed through courtyards with young men in orange robes quietly strolling in pairs. Eventually, I came to Khema's living quarters, a tiny house at the back end of the complex. We sat under some trees. A faint scent of jasmine wafted through the air.         Under the trees, Khema and I began discussing modern physics and cosmology. I had brought him one of my own books on the subject. "Buddhism is in complete agreement with science," Khema said slowly and smiled. Then he added, "Science puts in more details." Khema explained the Buddhist belief that the universe has gone through an infinite number of cycles in the past and will go through an infinite number of cycles in the future. When I mentioned to him that modern cosmologists have evidence that the universe will continue expanding without further cycles, he laughed. Perhaps he thought it was preposterous that science could know such a thing. Or perhaps he thought it delightful that science could know such a thing. While we were talking, Khema's sister, an ancient nun with a shaved head, appeared from somewhere and silently served us tea. I noticed that her hands were wrinkled and worn, like the cracked yellow paint on the walls of Khema's house.         I asked Khema how Buddhists know that the universe has already gone through an infinite number of cycles. He said that knowledge comes from the Buddha, one of whose names is lokavidū, the "knower of worlds." "The Buddha knew everything," said Khema. He took out a pen and scribbled down some books I should read. His writing was slow and deliberate, like himself. We stopped talking. In the distance, I could hear the rise and fall of monks' chanting, soft like the sound of the wind, unintelligible. I had no idea what time it was .  .  .          During my visit with Khema, he mentioned the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: First, that life is filled with suffering. Second, that the origin of suffering is the craving and clinging to impermanent things. Third, that the suffering of life can be ended. And fourth, that the path to that end is through meditation, self-discipline, and mindful living. Although the Buddha first articulated the Four Noble Truths 2,500 years ago, Khema was careful to make clear that we come to these truths through our own experience with the world. But on other matters, such as their belief in the infinite cycles of the universe, Buddhists base their convictions exclusively on the words of the Buddha, a human being born as Siddhārtha Gautama, later known as the lokavidū, the "knower of worlds." I thought to myself: How do we know that the Buddha was the knower of worlds? Were Einstein and Darwin also knowers of worlds? The truths and laws that we believe about the physical and spiritual worlds--why do we believe them? And on what authority?   .  .  . There are major differences in the truths of science and religion and the manner in which those truths are discovered. Unlike religion, science does not accept truths and laws based on the authority of divine beings or their designated emissaries or even from the institution of science as a whole. The ideas of great figures in science, such as Niels Bohr and Alexander von Humboldt and Claude Bernard, might be taken seriously for a time simply out of deference to those towering intellects, but eventually the ideas will be accepted or rejected based on experimental test. Similarly, the personal transcendent experience, while a vital source of truth in religion, is viewed with suspicion in science. Personal passion may be a motivation and pleasure for scientists in doing their work, but the only truths and results that are accepted by the scientific community are those that can be reproduced in different experiments by different scientists and rederived by different people from the same mathematical equations. Indeed, science goes out of its way to try to eliminate the personal from the process of acquiring knowledge.         Finally, we see strong differences between science and religion in the process of revision. The core beliefs of religion--and indeed the ideals of any of the Absolutes--are not subject to change or revision. The wisdom of God or of the enlightened Buddha is absolute. It is perfect. So is the nature of permanence, of unity, of indivisibility, of absolute truth. These entities of the Absolute are not approximations, like Newton's equations for gravity. They are exact. They are like perfect circles, eternal and unassailable. They are like the amrita, the elixir of immortality. They are like Plato's ideal forms. .  .  . One summer, we had two or three hummingbirds darting about the feeder we hung on the veranda at the south end of our house. I quietly watched them from a back window, afraid of scaring them off. The birds seem to defy gravity. They hover. They float. They are "air within the air," said Pablo Neruda. They are a painter's accents, splashes of color on the canvas of the world, with iridescent blue heads and ruby red throats, iridescent light green and saffron bodies, orangish tails. You can't see the color of their wings because they are flapping back and forth 50 times per second. To supply oxygen for such an engine, the highest metabolism of almost all animals, the heart rate of a hummingbird is an incredible 1,300 beats per minute. Oxygen consumption per weight is ten times that of top human athletes.          You can actually calculate a lot of the design specs of the hummingbird from basic physics and biology. The hummingbird earns its living by being able to hover in midair while sucking the nectar from delicious flowers. How fast must it flap its wings to perform such an acrobatic feat? Slow-motion videos of hummingbirds show that their wings move in a rotary motion, changing shape and angle throughout each cycle. If you require that the bird achieve the require aerodynamic lift to support its weight, its wing tip must move at about 1,500 centimeters per second. That corresponds to a flapping rate of about 50 flaps per second, as observed.         You can also compute the required heart rate. A human being can flap its wings, i.e., arms, at about 4 times per second. (I have personally verified this result in front of my appalled students at MIT.) Since the heart rate of an exercising human is around 125 beats per minute, the required heart rate of an h-bird, needing 50 flaps per second, should be 50/4 times larger, or about 1,600 beats per minute. That number is pretty close to the figure observed. It's all a matter of science, like the swing of a pendulum. It's all material. But when I'm looking at the birds, suspended in space, I don't think numbers or gravity. I just watch and am amazed. Excerpted from Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan P. Lightman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.