Alan Lightman is that rare hybrid individual who publicly straddles the world of science and the humanities. He worked for many years as a theoretical physicist at Harvard, and had a dual appointment at MIT in the sciences and the humanities. He’s written six novels, including the best selling “Einstein’s Dreams,” and another that was a finalist for the National Book Award.

In his new nonfiction book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” he investigates the nature of transcendent experience, and what differentiates science from philosophy and religion. The book opens in a dark cave in the Dordogne region of France, a cave that holds ancient paintings done nearly 20,000 years ago, where he reflects on what must have inspired them. From there, the book moves to the author lying in the bottom of his boat near his home on Lute Island, Maine, moved by the transcendent experience of staring up at the stars.

It is that transcendent experience that captures his imagination and sparks the inquiry into how humans know the world – through hard science and the modern scientific method, but also through mystical, embodied experiences.

“…I have always held a purely scientific view of the world,” he writes. “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… eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts.” Yet lying in the bottom of his boat, he realizes “I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes – ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, and sacred.” He observes, however, that there is no way to get there from here, no “step-by-step to go from relative truth to absolute truth… or from limited wisdom to the infinite wisdom of God.” The truth of his experience in the boat, however, “its validity and power resided in the experience itself.”

Lightman goes back to the Greeks and the Romans, to Democritus and Lucretius, who grounded the beginning of material science with their notion of atoms as the smallest, most fundamental building block in nature. He takes us on a journey through science’s disassembling of the ancients’ explanation of the divine nature of the universe. He introduces us to Galileo’s fashioning of a telescope that revealed the imperfections of the cratered moon in the 16th century; also Copernicus’ shattering of a heliocentric universe; and on to the skepticism of Francis Bacon that forged the development of the modern scientific method. Then Lightman dives deep into the atom, whizzing past particles and quarks to Planck length, something “a hundred billion billion times smaller than quark, which is itself a few hundred thousand times smaller than an atom.” Around the universe, then deep into the quantum realms, Lightman returns to his existential ponderings on Lute Island.

His time on the island, he admits, has largely been spent wondering “whether it all adds up to something… I’ve always thought that for something to have meaning, it has to be permanent, or at least last a very long time.” That thought brings him back around to the notion of Absolutes. “Permanence is the Absolute that attracts me the most.”

He asserts that he respects the notion of God and other divine beings, but “I insist on one thing… that any statement made by such beings and their prophets about the material world… must be subject to the experimental testing of science” that always obeys laws in every instance.

He then muddies the water by pointing out that there is an Absolute in science he refers to as “the Central Doctrine of Science.” It always has a mathematical foundation. It answers more questions than it raises. It “has been fairly successful over the last 500 years,” he declares.

But wait. “The Central Doctrine must simply be accepted,” he writes. It and the “Final Theory of Nature,” the brass ring of science and another Absolute that will hopefully explain everything – they can never be proven. They are articles of faith – not unlike believing in a supreme, divine being.

Which doesn’t leave readers – or the rest of us – much firm footing to stand on to consider the big questions of existence. “What caused the universe to come into being? Why is there something rather than nothing? We don’t know and will almost certainly never know. And so this most profound question… will likely remain the domain of philosophy and religion.”

Lightman breaks little new ground here. I wish he had taken a larger stab at the philosophical outlook, rather than the scientific one, as he intimated he intended to do in his opening chapters. I wish he’d alloted space to address how the pole stars of the Central Doctrine of Science and the Final Theory of Nature – how their being Absolutes – eat at the invariant promise of the scientific method. It is, ultimately, the seminal question his book raises. The author’s failing to grasp hold of it feels like Einstein skipping past Relativity.

In the last lines of “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” Lightman pays fleeting attention to the idea that the meaning of transcendence exists only in the moment. It is perhaps his clearest – and longest – musings from the perspective of philosophy in the whole book.

He doesn’t state as much, but he implies that such a moment is where we behold the Absolute Now. This hints at the promise of “Searching for Stars,” but he gives the thought a mere three sentences. In terms of our individual existences, after everything else is said and done, the Absolute Now is all there ever is. It seems a great irony that in “Searching for Stars,” he barely alights on that idea.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for what has become the PEN/Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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