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Ingenious: Alan Lightman

The physicist on writing, the writer on physics.

Alan Lightman was waiting for me by a post office in small-town Maine. “I’m not going to be able to say anything interesting enough,”…By Michael Segal

Alan Lightman was waiting for me by a post office in small-town Maine. “I’m not going to be able to say anything interesting enough,” he told me after shaking my hand, “to justify your coming down here.” Which was both entirely untrue, and par for the course for Lightman: Impeccably modest, friendly, and hospitable, he drove our cameraman and myself to a local deli before boating us over to his summer home for an interview. After all, it wouldn’t do for us to be hungry.

Lightman’s career is that rarest of combinations, having reached the elite levels of both theoretical physics and novel writing. Having studied under the famed theorist Kip Thorne at Cal Tech, and spent 13 years at Harvard as a professor and then a research scientist, he received a joint appointment in science and the humanities at MIT.1 His published work includes a textbook called Radiative Processes in Astrophysics, and over a dozen books of fiction, popular science, and essays. One of these, Einstein’s Dreams, became an international bestseller and has been translated into 30 languages.

When I ask him how he has managed to be so successful in such different arenas, the answer is characteristically Lightman: “I’ve relied on the generosity of strangers.” But it also obvious that he has, quite simply, worked hard at it, thinking carefully about both the objective and subjective experience of life. In his essay for Nautilus, “My Own Personal Nothingness,” and in this interview, Lightman challenges us to do the same.

The video plays at the top of the screen.


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Interview Transcript

Tell us about your vacation house in Maine.

We spend three months here of the year and there are no roads to the island. There is no ferry service. Even though it’s only about a quarter mile from the mainland it feels like it’s light-years away, and this is the place where we feel like we unplug from the modern world. It seems to me that in the last 25 or 30 years the pace of living in the developed world has just gotten out of hand, partly due to the high speed communication devices like the cell phone, and we—when I say we now, I mean human beings—we don’t give ourselves enough time to think, think about who we are and what’s important to us and where we’re going. And being on this island for three months and almost unplug gives me a chance to think about those things and to let my mind think about what it wants to think about. So it’s spiritual in the sense that the place allows my imagination and my mind to expand, and I’m able to think about the big picture.

Are you ever surprised by where your mind takes you when you unplug?

Oh, yes I am surprised. There was—about five years ago or six years ago I was between projects, between writing projects, and I’m always in a great depression, a blue funk, when I’m between projects and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to start on next and I always worry: Is the next project going to be any good? Every time I start on a new project I’m starting with a blank piece of paper. And so I was in this blue funk and I decided I would just sit at my writing desk and just let my mind go where it wanted to go and just write down stream-of-consciousness thoughts that occurred to me. What came to my mind was a scene from maybe 55 years ago when I was in the projection booth of a small movie theater owned by my family and I was there with the projectionist and watching him run the projector. In those days movie projectors, it was all film for one thing—celluloid not digital—and also the intense light that was needed to illuminate each frame of film was created not by a light bulb but by a carbon arc lamp, which is two sticks of carbon that are very close together and then you run a strong electrical current between them and you get this very intense light where the electricity leaps from one pointed carbon rod to the next. It’s actually pretty dangerous. It causes fires. But anyway, that’s the way the old movie projectors were illuminated and I had this memory of being there, and that memory led to other memories and eventually led to a memoir that I wrote about growing up in Memphis in my family’s movie business. But the thought came out of nowhere. I hadn’t thought about that for decades and it’s an example of just letting your mind think about what it wants to think about.

Do you find being alone helps your creative work?

For me, the creative process is a solitary process. I know that there’re performance musicians, like in symphonies, who cannot perform by themselves. They have to be performing with other musicians. There are certain art forms which are intrinsically group activities. But I think that most of the art forms, and certainly the ones that I have an affinity with, are solitary activities. And science, and certainly theoretical science, is also one of those art forms. It’s a solitary activity. The interesting thing about the creative act to me is, you have to get to a place—actually during the creative act, or at least to initiate the creative act, which is sometimes not a conscious decision, you go deep within yourself. But once you are in the groove, so to speak, you lose all track of yourself. You lose track of your ego and your body and where you are and who you are. You just get into this state of pure discovery. And I think that’s an interesting paradox for me that you go deeply into yourself in order to get outside of yourself. But I think that it’s, at least for the art forms that I know about, that they’re fundamentally solitary activities and you’re really making a self-discovery. You’re discovering something about yourself I think, when you create a piece of music or you write a piece of fiction or you do a painting; it’s a process of self-discovery. You are refracting the world around you through your own being, your own soul. 

What is the story of the ospreys you found near your summer home?

My wife and I have been coming to this place, this island, for about 25 years and we have been watching, for many years we watched this family of ospreys and we followed their life cycles and in April the parents would fly into the nest having been gone for the winter. They would, the mother osprey would lay eggs and at the beginning of June the eggs would hatch. The father would feed the fledgling family over the summer as the baby ospreys got bigger and bigger and then around the middle of August the babies would be big enough, they would take their first flight and ospreys are big birds, very large birds. I think they’re the second largest bird after eagles, and they’re very powerful and my wife and I had been watching these ospreys for years and watching new families each year, presumably it was the same parents each year, but different babies each year, and we had sort of catalogued their behavior or taken pictures, written down some of their behaviors and we thought we understood them somewhat, and then one summer about 10 years ago I had been looking at the nest all summer long as the babies were getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I was looking at them from a circular deck in this house, and I was about eye level with the nest and so the baby ospreys had been looking at me every day as I’d been looking at them and I’m sure to them it looked like I was in a nest also because also on a circular deck and we’d been looking at each other all summer long, as they’d been getting bigger and bigger and finally they were big enough to take their first flight, their maiden voyage to leave the nest for the first time flying and they were pretty big at this time. I mean and even though adolescent, they were powerful with very strong claws, and there were two of them and I was standing on the deck and they flew away from the nest and did a huge circle of the island so they were out of sight for a little while because the island is about half a mile long, and then they flew back and they flew right at me, and they got closer and closer and after a few seconds I could tell that they were flying right at me intentionally and I got very scared because I knew they could rip my face apart easily and I was thinking about running back into the house but I decided, something made me stay where I was and when they got within about 20 feet from me, which is very, very close, and they were flying at extremely high speed—when they got within 20 or 30 feet of me, very, very close, they would’ve been on me in a fraction of a second. They suddenly did this sudden acceleration, vertical acceleration and went up and over the roof of the house and for that last split second, it might’ve been like a quarter of a second, a fraction of a second, they looked me right in the eye. It was a very deep eye contact and I had no doubt they were looking at me right in the eye before they accelerated upward and in that brief quarter of a second there was so much that was communicated between us. I felt like they were telling me that we were brothers, that we shared this piece of land together, that we were part of nature together and that there was some kind of mutual respect and after they had gone and were over the house I found that I was in tears and I was shaking and I’d never had an experience like that before with any animal, even dogs and cats, and never had it since. It was just a profound communication with a wild animal, but a mutual understanding. And it was something that I really can’t describe. I mean I’ve attempted to describe it right now, but I can’t really describe that sensation and I think that that… I mean I interpret that as a connection to the spiritual world. You know if we think of the spiritual world as a larger world that we’re all a part of—when I say all of us I mean human beings, ospreys, other animals, trees, ocean— there was that kind of immediate connection, something that is totally unanalyzable by science. I mean you could hook up a CAT scanner to my brain and you could monitor the electrical activity in my brain and you wouldn’t come close to understanding what happened in that quarter of a second.

How did you decide to study astrophysics?

Well, the way that I got started with astrophysics to begin with was that when I was an undergraduate in physics—so this would be the late 1960s—the two sexiest areas of theoretical physics were elementary particle physics and general relativity, which is Einstein’s theory of gravity, and there were new discoveries being made in particle physics with the new accelerators ramming particles together at high energy and in 1967, the first neutron star was discovered, which is a very, very dense star.  It’s a star that has the mass of the sun but a diameter of 10 miles so it’s almost a black hole and so these kinds of discoveries produced a lot of excitement in those two fields. So I wanted to choose one or the other, beginning my research career in physics. The field of elementary particle physics was glutted.  There were lots and lots of people going into that field and it was not easy to get a job after you got your Ph.D. in that field. So I think for practical reasons I decided that I would pursue general relativity and that got me into astrophysics because most interesting gravitational phenomena that we study is outside of planet earth. So the first few problems I worked on were closely connected to general relativity. The first black hole was discovered in 1972, about eight or 10 light-years away from earth, [and] was called Cygnus X-1. And so that was right in the middle of my graduate school study and that was terribly exciting for all graduate students in physics and so that also was a big influence on my work in the choice of my research problems.

Can you tell us a Richard Feynman story?

All right, I’ll tell you one Feynman story. One of the days at lunch in the Cal Tech cafeteria, there were two other graduate students, Bill Press and Saul Teukolsky, and me, and Feynman. And Saul and Bill were talking about this calculation they had just done where—this is a theoretical calculation, purely mathematical—where they looked at what happens if you shine light on a rotating black hole, and if you shine it at the right angle, the light will bounce off the black hole with more energy than it came in from, and sort of the classical analogue is that you have a spinning top and if you throw a marble at it at the right angle, the marble will bounce off the top with more velocity than it came in with and the top slows down a little bit so the energy, the increased energy of the marble, comes from the spin of the top. And so Bill and Saul were talking about this and Feynman was listening and we got up from the table and began walking back through the campus and Feynman says, “You know that process that you’ve described,”—it was a classical calculation, that is without quantum mechanics that Bill and Saul had done—Feynman said, “It sounds very much like stimulated emission”—which is a process, a quantum process, in atomic physics where you have an electron orbiting an atom, a light particle called a photon comes in and two light particles are emitted and the electron goes to a lower energy state, so the light is amplified by the electron. The electron decreases energy and gives up that extra energy to sending out two photons and one came in. And Feynman said, “What you’ve just described sounded like stimulated emission and according to Einstein, there’s a well-known relationship between stimulated emission and spontaneous emission.” Spontaneous emission is when you have an electron orbiting an atom and it just emits a photon all by itself without any light coming in and goes to a lower energy state, and Einstein had worked out this relationship between stimulated and spontaneous emission. Whenever you have one, you have the other, at the atomic level, and that’s well known, that work of Einstein is well known to all graduate students of physics. So Feynman said it sounds like that simulated emission, which we’ve done, there should be a spontaneous emission process analogous to it. And so we’d been sort of wandering through the campus. We ended up in my office, which is a tiny little room, and we went into my office—that is the four of us: Bill, Saul, me, and Feynman—and Feynman went to the blackboard in my office and began working out the equations for spontaneous emission from black holes. Up until this point in the history of mankind, it had been thought that all black holes were completely black, that a black hole could never emit on its own, any energy of any kind, but Feynman had postulated after listening to Bill and Saul talk at lunch that if a black hole, a spinning black hole, can emit with light coming in, it can also emit energy with nothing coming in if you take into account quantum mechanics. So after a few minutes, he had worked out the process of spontaneous emission on my blackboard, which is what Stephen Hawking a year later became famous for, but Feynman had it all on my blackboard. And after he had finished working it out on the blackboard, there was chalk dust on his hand and he sort of brushed his hands together to get the chalk dust off his hands and walked out of the office. He wasn’t interested in copying down what he’d written on the blackboard, or publishing it, he just wanted to know the answer and that’s the way Feynman was. He just wanted to know the answer to things and once he had the answer, he was satisfied and then he would move on to something else. He just wanted to know how nature worked and so he had just learned that isolated black holes are capable of emitting energy when you take into account quantum effects. Well, Feynman walked out of the room and Bill and Saul and I were kind of looking at the blackboard not completely realizing how important this thing that Feynman had just done on my blackboard and thinking that it was probably important but not knowing how important, and Bill and Saul had to go off to some appointment or something, so they left the office and a little bit later I left the office and that night I realized that this was a major thing that Feynman had done and I needed to hurry back to my office and copy down these equations and when I got back to my office the next morning the cleaning lady had wiped the blackboard clean and that was that. Then a year later or so, Hawking publishes his paper on the quantum emission of black holes and I think that that probably happened with Feynman a lot—that he would discover new things but not publish them and I imagine that his file cabinets were full of great unpublished discoveries. 

When Hawking published his results Feynman probably just nodded and said, “Yeah, that’s right.  I understand that.” But Feynman just wanted to understand. I don’t think that he had a big ego. I mean he had an ego about his masculinity, that’s another issue, but about his science I don’t think that he had a big ego. I don’t think that he was trying to get credit for what he did.

What was the moment of your first discovery in physics?

Well, the first moment of discovery that I had as a working physicist was when I was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. I was about 23 years old at the time and I was working on a project. The problem that I had been trying to solve or answer, the question I was trying to answer, was whether the fact that all objects fall with the same acceleration in a gravitational field, whether that requires that gravity be describable in geometric terms. Not all theories of gravity allow gravity to be described as geometry, as a change in geometry, and I didn’t know the answer to the question. I mean no one knew the answer to the question at that time. That’s what’s exciting about scientific work and I had written down the equations that would allow me to answer this question, but there was some error in the equations; even before getting to the answer, I knew that at the halfway point there was an error in the equations but I couldn’t find the error and I beat my head against the wall for about four or five months on this. I had like 15 pages of equations and I’d been working on this for months and I began sleeping in my graduate room office, keeping cans of sardines in the drawer to eat and living there basically. And then one morning I woke up with this buzz in my head and I was seeing very deeply into this physics problem and I was seeing it in a way that I had not seen before. It wasn’t just you know, going from one equation to the next in my head. I had a realization about the problem and the sensation that I had was that I was—it’s the sensation that I’ve had when I have been out sailing in a round-bottom boat. If you’re a sailor and you have a round-bottom boat you know that there’s a phenomenon called planing, in which the boat, if the wind is strong, the boat can get on top of the water and suddenly all of the water resistance vanishes and you feel like you’re skimming across the water like a stone; it feels like this giant hand has taken hold of the mast of your boat and just yanked you forward. It’s an incredible physical sensation, and that’s the sensation that I had when I woke up that morning and I was seeing my physics problem in a different way. I felt like I was just, that all the resistance had gone to zero, and I was just flying along and I ran into the kitchen and took out my pages of calculation and I saw where I’d gone wrong and I began working feverishly; and in about five or six hours I had the answer to the problem. During that five or six hours, I had no awareness of where I was. In fact I didn’t even know that five or six hours had passed. I only knew that when I went outside and looked at a clock. It seemed like I was there just for a few minutes. But I didn’t want any help with this problem. I wanted to be alone with the problem and I didn’t have any thoughts about whether I would publish the results or whether this would help me get my Ph.D. or any personal connection. I just felt like this giant hand had grabbed hold of me, was skimming me across the water. And that is a beautiful, beautiful moment.

Anyone who has experienced a creative moment in their life has experienced something like that and it is the most exquisite pleasure that we can have. 

Which of your discoveries in physics are you proudest of?

I think that the one that I’m proudest of is something that I did after I left Kip Thorne’s group, when I was completely on my own; because the study of the equivalence principle, that problem, was one that Kip Thorne had posed to me—so he posed the problem. A few years after that I worked on a problem involving very high temperature gases, when the temperature is so high that you start creating matter out of energy, and you create electrons and their anti-particles, the positrons, and how does such a gas behave, and it’s those kinds of very high temperature gases [that] are relevant to astrophysics, where we think that in objects with very strong gravitational fields, like massive black holes, that there are these extremely high temperature gases that surround them as matter is falling into the black hole. It heats up to very high temperatures, and so I made some minor discoveries about how those high temperature gases behave and because that was done completely on my own without being a graduate student, without having a thesis advisor suggest the problem to me, I feel proud of those minor discoveries.

Are the sensations of discovery in physics and writing similar?

The sensation is very similar to what I’ve experienced as a writer when I’ve been struggling with a character for a long time and I keep rewriting a scene and the character just doesn’t come to life, and it might be because the dialogue isn’t quite right. Fundamentally, it’s because I don’t fully understand the character. I don’t understand the character well enough. I don’t think a writer should ever fully understand their characters, but I didn’t understand the character well enough and I remember several books I’ve written when suddenly I saw something about the character and there might’ve been one new line of dialogue that suddenly brought them to life. The sensation and the pleasure in it is the same that I have felt in my moments of scientific discovery. What’s similar in both situations that I’ve described is that I was stuck at the beginning, and I think that a lot of times we despair when we’re stuck, when working on problems. A lot of young people in school feel that they’ve failed when they’re stuck and what I say is that being stuck is a good thing because being stuck is part of the creative process and when you are stuck, when you think that you’ve hit a dead end, at a subconscious level your mind is working, and it is skimming along and looking at different possibilities and trying different things out, matching different puzzle pieces together—often at an unconscious level—and being stuck is a great stimulus to that process. A lot of the great scientific discoveries of the last couple of hundred years have been made as a result of the scientist first being very stuck and then having a moment or a period of insight. So I think being stuck is a part of the creative process and is a good thing. It’s something that we should embrace.

Do you feel a tension between your scientific and artistic sides?

Well, it’s a constructive tension. I think tension is not necessarily a bad thing. I think good results can come out of a tension. But I do find from time to time that I have to switch off my analytical mind, or I have to switch off my artistic mind in order to deal with whatever the issue at hand is. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to pursue both of these interests and I remember that when I was younger in high school that I had two sets of friends. I had the scientific friends and these are the guys, mostly guys, who built their own rockets and chemistry sets and they were logical and good at math, and liked to deal with questions that had answers; and then I had my artistic friends. These were the guys and girls that acted in the school plays and wrote for the literary magazine and I wasn’t really, it wasn’t until after, long afterward, that I realized that these were two distinct groups of friends. At the time I didn’t think about that—I just had the different groups of friends. And I remember that my friends, and even my teachers and my parents, were sort of nudging me to go in one direction or the other, to either be the more artistic type or the more scientific type, that life would be easier for me if I put all my eggs in one basket. But I was able to maintain both of those interests and I was very lucky that after college, I was able to find institutions that would allow me to be my idiosyncratic and dual self. So I’ve had the generosity of strangers.

What was it like writing poetry as a physics post-doc at Cornell?

The poetry was better at getting girls. I was single at the time and romantically inclined and I think the poetry helped with meeting young women. It gave us more to talk about. So I think the broadening of myself at Cornell was partly in the search of young women. There was a building at Cornell, and I can’t remember which building it was, but there was a regular poetry series there where once a week Cornell students and faculty could come and read poetry to each other and that was loosely presided over by a very famous American poet named A.R. Ammons, who was a Cornell faculty member. He was a, I think probably in the English department at Cornell, but also I think he had an association with these weekly poetry readings and they called it the Temple of Zeus, and I went to those and I found that it served many purposes and needs. It gave me an outlet for my poetry to read it to people. I met a wide group of other students and post docs, not just in the sciences. I met young women and I also met A.R. Ammons and I remember having a meeting with him in his office because I had been reading some poems at these weekly gatherings at the Temple of Zeus and he read a few of my poems and he said I can tell that you haven’t been through the regular summer workshops and you could take that either way—either as a disparaging remark or a complimentary remark. I think that he meant it in a complimentary way, that I had some originality in my poetry, but he was an inspiration to me and another inspiration at Cornell was Carl Sagan, who in addition to being an astronomer was also someone who reached out to the general public and had a lot of theatrical talents in addition to his scientific talents. So those were some of the influences at Cornell that made me broaden myself. 

You were once scooped by another team of scientists. How did that affect you?

I was a post-doc at Cornell University and I was working on a certain problem that had to do with gravity and stars of different masses and how they would affect each other if they were all orbiting each other and the problem had been completely solved before with, if all the stars had the same mass; and I was solving the problem where the stars had different masses and I had worked on it for about six months and at the end, I was ready to publish, to submit a paper for publication, and at the end of every scientific paper you have references where you reference other articles in the field and usually I write the reference section at the end when I’m completely finished with my paper, I then will reference other works in the field. So I was in the library checking on related work and I found a paper that had just been published by a group of Japanese physicists that solved exactly the same problem that I had solved and I took out my own notebook and I compared to their results and the answers were the same like to five decimal places and I had a range of emotions that went through me.  The first emotion was despair, and depression that I realized that I would not be able to publish this paper now because someone else had published it first and I began worrying you know, this paper was part of, I was hoping that this paper and other papers would gain me an assistant professorship and so I began wondering about, worrying about the negative aspects of my career and then I began thinking I’ve wasted all of this time, this four or five months, and then there was another emotion that took hold of me, which was one of awe—that’s the only way I can put it—that these two Japanese scientists on the other side of the planet without any communication with me had worked on the same problem and gotten the same answer and isn’t that remarkable? You know I don’t speak Japanese; they don’t speak English I’m sure, but we were both using the same mathematics and we were both using the same laws of physics and isn’t it remarkable and even awe inspiring that there is this system of truth that’s outside of our bodies. It’s not dependent on whether we’re American or Japanese or whatever, that we can all grab on to and be a part of. There’s an external reality out there. It’s not just all in our heads and so this was a tremendous—this was an exhilarating feeling. I had paid a high price to have this feeling, but it was an exhilarating feeling and gave me a more profound appreciation for this external truth that’s out there. 

I did realize that this particular problem that I had been working on and that the Japanese scientists had been working on was not attached to either one of us. You know this is getting back to the external truth that’s out there. If the Japanese scientists hadn’t worked on this problem and if I hadn’t worked on this problem somebody else would’ve worked on the problem and would’ve gotten the same answer to six decimal places and this sort of reconfirmed my understanding that science is really not a good profession to leave one’s individual mark. And science, good science, is science that can be reproduced by any scientist anywhere in the world. A good theory is not only a theory that agrees with the experiment but represents equations that any trained physicist could derive him or herself, could come up with these equations; and a good experiment is one that has to be reproducible. If an experiment can only be performed at one place and one time, and not again then the results of that experiment are meaningless. So reproducibility, non-individuality, are hallmarks of science. If you want to leave your own personal mark, your own individuality, it’s much better to go into the arts where I think that the essence of the arts lies in the individual imagination, soul of the individual artist. If Einstein hadn’t come up with the theory of relativity someone else would have. It might’ve been [Hendrik] Lorentz. There are a half dozen other scientists who would’ve come up with it almost at the same time, but no one is going to come up with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, except Beethoven; and no one is going to come up with Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” except Robert Frost. Those are unique works of art that are attached to unique people. So this is a significant difference I think in the scientific and the artistic enterprise.

Why did you decide to stop doing physics and focus entirely on writing?

Well for about 15 years I did do both but I was burning the candle at both ends and at some point I realized that I didn’t really have time to do both; but more importantly, my powers as a physicist were waning. I think most scientists, in all sciences, do their best work when they’re younger. Science is principally a young person’s game. You can still be important in the community of science at an older age. You can write textbooks, you can serve on national committees, but the pioneering research in almost all of the sciences is done by young people. And when I got into my 40s and 50s I could see that my powers as a scientist were diminishing. On the other hand, a writer or an artist can continue getting better and better as they get older and older until they become physically frail. The life experiences which are I think, the foundation of all the arts, accumulate as you get older, whereas life experiences don’t help a physicist at all. In fact they may be a hindrance. 

Many of the characters you create experience a sudden change or unusual circumstance. What attracts you to that sort of narrative?

Well, let me speak first as a writer. I would say that as a writer, what attracts me to that kind of a narrative is a compensation for a weakness that I have as a writer, and that is that I don’t think that I’m really that good at creating interesting characters.  There are writers who are far better at creating characters and once you’ve created, if you’re really, really good at creating an interesting character, the story almost doesn’t matter. The story comes out of the character. You don’t have to twist the plot to make something interesting happen. You’ve created an interesting character and you just follow the character. As someone who’s not so talented at creating interesting characters, I have to look for other elements that will start a story in motion. It’s not going to come out of the character and often I’m interested in pursuing ideas. Of course pursuing ideas in fiction is very dangerous. You have to handle ideas in fiction like high explosives because you don’t want your novel to be pedagogical or didactic.  So the way that I explore ideas in fiction and at the same time compensate for my relative weakness in creating good characters is I will take a character and I will put them in a difficult situation or put them in a situation where a sudden change is thrust upon them and that sets the story in motion. So then I just follow that character and see how the character’s reacting to the situation that I’ve put them in.

So I think this is one of the reasons why in my fiction I often have situations where there’s an unstable situation—like in one novel, Ghost, the main character who is an otherwise very logical and rational person thinks that he sees a ghost, which completely upsets his world view. So that set the story in motion. How was he going to deal with this? Is he going to dismiss it? Is he going to think that he was hallucinating? If he takes it seriously, he has to question everything that he believes in, the nature of reality and so on. 

How do you think your background in science has affected your writing?

The desire to do experiments. And in this case, I’m doing an experiment with the human psyche and seeing how people will react to different situations. Yes, so I guess that is a residue of my work in science. Some writers have also told me that my writing, my fiction, has more structure in it than the average and that also could be a result of my logical thinking. I mean I do know enough not to start paragraphs off with topic sentences, but there probably are a number of ways in which my writing has evolved from my background in science and these two things that we’ve pointed out—the fact that there’s often an event at the beginning of the story in my fiction that puts the main character in an uncertain and unpredictable situation, and the fact that my writing has a lot of structure—neither one of these elements are necessarily good things. They’re just particular qualities of my own writing. I don’t think that structure is necessarily a good thing and I don’t think that having dramatic experiments in fiction is necessarily a good thing either. But they’re just the way that I write. I think that every writer, every writer of fiction draws from a particular source—I don’t know what to call it other than a source, something in their background—you know, for Junot Diaz, it’s obvious it’s his life in the Dominican Republic, and then the contrast of that with his life in the U.S. And for me, it’s my life as a scientist. I think that every writer has some source. A lot of writers travel a lot when they’re young, and they draw on those experiences. 

Your fiction writing is particularly rich in its details. Why is that?

I know that scenes, creating a scene in great detail is important to me, and I do have a hypothesis about where that came from because my family in Memphis was in the movie business. That is, we owned movie theaters and as a young boy I used to watch two or three movies a week. I would go to one of my father’s or grandfather’s theaters and sit up in the balcony and I could get in free and watch movies and I was very taken with the way scenes are set in movies—the camera work, that you could look at a scene from above; you could look at it from one side or the other side; you could have a close-up; or you could have a distance shot—and I began thinking of every experience in terms of a scene and sort of imagining setting up a scene. I mean, when I would go outside of the movie theater, I would think of life around me that way. And so I think that part of my interest in creating very detailed scenes might have originated there, sitting in the balcony of the movie theater watching movies.

How does our impermanence affect the meaning of life?

In past years, I always assumed that meaning was associated with permanence. That is, if you write a book that’s read for a month or two and then is thrown out, that book has much less meaning than a book that’s still read 50 or 100 years later. And that’s just one example—I won’t go into lots of other examples. What I have come to realize more and more, and this is partly from my interest in Buddhist thought but it also comes out of my understanding of science, is that nothing lasts. There’s nothing that’s permanent. Our own bodies, I don’t think there’s anything that lasts in our bodies after material death. I think that we are totally material beings, is another way of saying it. We have very short lifetimes, and there will be nothing of us left after we’re gone except in the memories of other people and then those people will eventually die and then a few generations later there will be no memories of us. So if there is meaning, it cannot be associated with the idea of permanence since I don’t think that there’s anything permanent. I mean nature, there’s nothing permanent in nature. Even stars are not permanent; they’re all going to burn up at some point. Our sun is going to burn up in four or five billion years. So where does one find meaning if it’s not associated with permanence? Well, it has to be associated with something that’s transitory, or of the moment. And I’m not sure about where one finds meaning, but what I do know is that I feel pleasure and pain and I can do certain activities that maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain and when I use the words pleasure and pain I don’t just mean physical pleasure and pain; I mean intellectual pleasure and pain, philosophical pleasure and pain, moral pleasure and pain. I feel pleasure when I help someone who needs help, who has less advantages than I do and I feel pain when I insult somebody and realize that I’ve insulted them. So what I think has meaning for me is living in such a way that from moment to moment, I maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain, so that might mean eating good meals because that’s a pleasurable experience. It might mean at a less superficial level being loving to my family. It might mean trying to write a good book because that brings me pleasure and on the other side minimizing activities that bring me pain, like trying to minimize being around boring people or trying to avoid causing harm to other people because that brings me pain. So that’s what meaning has, where I’ve arrived at in my quest for meaning. I don’t think that that’s universal—that pleasure and pain principle actually has a name to it:  It’s called utilitarianism, and some other thinkers, wiser than I, have come up with utilitarianism in previous centuries. But that’s where I am now in my thinking about meaning. 

What was your most profound encounter with nothingness?

Well I had my first and most profound experience with what we might call nothingness, was when I was 9 years old and I still remember the event vividly. So, this would have been about 1957 or ’58. I was in a room of my home and I was looking out the window, I was listening to a train that was passing on some tracks about a half-mile or a mile away and I was looking through the window down the yard toward the street and suddenly I was outside of my body and I felt like I was in outer space and I had a sense of the infinite stretch of time before I was born and the infinite stretch of time after I would die and I also had a sense of the immensity of space, but it wasn’t like I could see a planet here and a planet there. It was much more abstract than that. I felt like I was really immaterial, that I was not in a material body and I realized that my life was, and then of course I was only 9 years old at the time and I hadn’t lived much life, but whatever life I had and whatever life I thought I would live before I died, I realized that it was just an insignificant speck in the cosmos, that it would not matter at all to the cosmos, my coming and going and that nature basically didn’t care and it was both an exhilarating feeling and a frightening feeling and I think what I… I’ve never had that experience since then, the emotional visceral experience that I had then. And I think what I took away from that is just a realization of how small we are. Our consciousness is an amazing thing, this very particular arrangement of atoms and molecules and neurons that give us this sense of I-ness, of ego, of power, of significance, and it’s all an illusion. We’re just bits of matter and we have this special arrangement that makes thought and consciousness for a short period of time and then it disassembles and all of our consciousness is gone. We’re nothing, nothingness again, and I think that that experience gave me a heightened realization, especially reflecting back on it years later when I have more of a context, more understanding of the world—it has given me a greater awareness of how temporary we are, how material we are, and that a lot of the reality that we create for ourselves, both in who we think we are and also the institutions that we create, that much of that is an illusion.

Issue 016

Nothingness

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