Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

Image of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine
Release Date: 
March 26, 2018
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“Do I know too much, or too little?” he asks. Very much an anti-reductionist, when he sees a flock of birds floating on air, he doesn’t think numbers or gravity. “I just watch and am amazed.”

Looking up one summer night from a small boat at sea, Alan Lightman ponders the stars. Seized with something immense, yet immaterial, he turns off the motor. Then the running lights. He lies back, and soon his body and the boat disappear. “And I found myself falling into infinity . . . surrounded by stars on all sides.”

Lightman, a physicist and author of Einstein’s Dreams, rarely ponders the material without weighing its human significance. He essays—in the original sense of the word—into consciousness, the self, free will, the mind-body problem, the soul. He shares his thoughts on imagination, creativity, the value of being alone with oneself, and the experience of being alone, too. Do it, he says, and you’ll find something larger than yourself.

The “reach of science” is limited, he admits, while pointing out its phenomenal success over the last 500 years in changing life on earth. The vast if limited physical world makes for endless experience that leaves the scientist awestruck and fascinated.

He is quick to acknowledge ambiguity. As a boy he saw the bioluminescent glow of seawater as magic, only to be disappointed that it was “just little bugs in the water.” Nothing but atoms and molecules. Looking back, the mature scientist sees that “facts don’t explain the experience.”

He marvels that we, with our short lifespans and limited senses, confined to one planet in a corner of the galaxy, should be able to deduce the completely lawful nature of all that is. It girds Lightman’s trust in absolutes. Every object and event is governed by simple laws that hold true at every time and place in the universe, from the Big Bang to the brewing of his morning coffee.

The logic of these laws dictate that material things are fleeting and impermanent. But Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine wrestles with the contradictory impulse to seek something absolute and immaterial, “a search for meaning, or the lack thereof, in our longing to be part of the infinite.”

Lightman’s summer residence on Pole Island, Maine, is home to only six families. There are no bridges, no ferries. Not until recently did the inhabitants even vote to have electricity. He has a wonderful essay on why it’s good to waste time, essential in fact. “That’s when the mind has a chance to think about what it wants to think about” without being bombarded by outside opinions and demands. After 25 summers, Lightman has discovered that silence “perpetuates itself” and reveals new ideas and feelings.

He admires the Darwin who said, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” The scientist struggles to reconcile the reductionist view that “it’s just material,” with the “transcendent invisible energy . . . associated with the magic of life.” He prefers seeing us not as “just flesh,” but “souls with bodies.”

He ponders being at rest relative to the center of the earth, which moves around the sun at 65,000 mph, which in turn revolves around the center of our Milky Way galaxy at 500,000 mph. “Do I know too much, or too little?” he then asks. He is very much an anti-reductionist. When he sees a flock of birds floating on air, he doesn’t “think numbers or gravity. I just watch and am amazed.”

Each chapter is a meditation on a theme—stars, atoms, ants, transcendence, truth, death, certainty, the multiverse. He can still be mind–boggled that nearly all the volume of an atom is empty space. If so, then what is real? What do we make of this preponderance of emptiness, this nothingness, this void? He acknowledges that he is both a scientist and humanist. He recalls moments of change on the island, when suddenly he saw things, and himself, differently.

The book covers much ground likely to be familiar, such as famous experiments done by men made famous by them. Truisms appear, too, such as the existence of “major differences in the truths of science and religion and the manner in which those truths are discovered.” Perhaps the author’s mixing of established observations with fresh perspectives will charm one set of readers. Others may find some of the author’s excursions too philosophical. 

Lightman ponders his big, knotty subjects in clear prose. He is content to be alive, aches and pains and all. He is “content with the illusion of life,” consoling himself with the thought that when he dies some of his atoms will remain on Pole Island. They won’t know where they came from, “but they will have been mine.”