Skip to content ↓

MIT novelist Lightman compares science, writing

Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman

MIT physicist and acclaimed novelist Alan Lightman gave a talk recently on his twin careers in science and writing, urging students to "find something you love, something you are passionate about, something that you feel compelled to do."

Lightman's award-winning fiction includes the novels "Einstein's Dreams" and "The Diagnosis." Last year, he published "A Sense of the Mysterious," a series of essays exploring the power of metaphor and imagination in science and the different uses of language in science and in literature.

Lightman's talk, titled "The Physicist as Novelist," was delivered Monday, March 6, in Evansville, Ind. In it, he traced how he found two fields -- science and art -- and two methods of inquiry to feel passionate about.

Describing himself as "fortunate to make a life in both and even to find creative sympathies between the two," Lightman sketched both the differences and the "substantial common ground of the physicist and the novelist."

One difference, he said, is in the way writing works in each field. In science writing, as in expository writing, "it is excellent form to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. A topic sentence names the idea of the paragraph.

"But in fiction writing, a topic sentence is usually fatal. Because the power of fiction writing is emotional and sensual, you want your reader to be blindsided, to let go and be carried off to that magical place. Every reader will travel differently, depending on his own life experiences. Telling your reader at the beginning how she is supposed to feel about something cancels the trip," he said.

But that "substantial common ground" encompasses more than technique, according to Lightman, for scientists and artists alike seek beauty, simplicity, truth and the fleeting, powerful elixir: inspiration.

"You've all seen paintings or heard musical compositions where you felt that not a single brush stroke or note could be changed. The same is true of Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, or Einstein's theory of gravity, or Weinberg's theory of the weak force. Nothing can be changed without destroying the entire theory," he said.

As for truth, "both the novelist and the scientist are seeking truth -- for the novelist, truth in the world of the mind and the heart; for the physicist, truth in the world of force and mass. In seeking truth, both the novelist and the scientist invent," he said.

More common ground between science and art is the source and shape of invention, said Lightman.

"An experience that that scientist and artist share, a most extraordinary experience, is the creative moment," said Lightman, whose first experience with that moment occurred when he was a graduate student in physics working on an unsolved research problem.

"The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. I was floating. And I had absolutely no sense of my self. I had a strong sense of seeing deeply into this problem and understanding it," he said. In fact, after months of work, he had solved his research problem.

Lightman, an adjunct professor of humanities, has taught at MIT since 1989, when he was appointed professor of science and writing and senior lecturer in physics. He co-founded the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing in 2001.

In November, he will be presented the 2006 medal for contributions to science and society from Sigma Xi, the scientific research society.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 5, 2006 (download PDF).

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News