When Alan Lightman was asked to host a new science series for PBS, he politely declined at first.

The physicist, novelist and MIT professor told the producers he was not interested in being involved with a straight science documentary, one that restates what we already know about the matter and elements that make up our world.

But if they wanted a series that explores the human dimensions of science, its moral, spiritual and philosophical implications and connections, then he’d be very interested. That’s the approach he took in his 2018 book “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” inspired by the time he spends at his summer home on a small island in Casco Bay.

Turns out the director of the proposed series had read Lightman’s book and wanted the exact same approach for the PBS series. Lightman signed on as host. The three-part series is called “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science” and begins streaming on demand at PBS.org on Saturday. It will air on the PBS World Channel beginning Jan. 17 and run for three consecutive Tuesday nights.

Lightman, 74, says he hopes the series will make science more relatable to people in ways that affect their daily lives. He knows that broadly, science can be polarizing with many people being suspicious of scientific pronouncements made by “elites” at universities and in government.

“I hope our series contributes to conversations people are having in a healing way, showing the human sides of the sciences,” said Lightman, who lives in Concord, Massachusetts, when not in Maine. “We talk about the moral, spiritual and philosophical aspects of the science of our world.”


Alan Lightman explores cave paintings in France in a scene from “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.” Photo courtesy of “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.”


To connect science to so many other disciplines for the series, Lightman traveled the world and talked to a range of historians, faith leaders, scientists and others. He explored caves in France to look at paintings done by humans thousands of years ago and had a conversation with the Dalai Lama about human consciousness, and whether it could ever be duplicated by a computer or robot. He traveled to Florence, Italy, to explore how Galileo’s observations some 400 years ago changed centuries of beliefs, showing that the Earth and the moon are made of the same materials.

And Lightman is filmed in his boat and at his Maine island home, staring at the night sky and wondering what secrets it holds. He did not want to name the island to protect the privacy of its inhabitants.

As for the more specific science segments in the series, Lightman visits with one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots. He spent time at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, exploring technology that captures changes in the brain by the millisecond and ponders whether such technology could ever capture transcendent experiences, or help explain falling in love. He says on camera he doubts they can.

In one segment in the first episode that combines science and everyday life, Lightman explains how the elements in our bodies were born in the stars. He then travels to a store and finds that buying the materials that make up our bodies would cost $538.66.

Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, the series producer and director, had worked on the groundbreaking “Cosmos” series on PBS with astronomer Carl Sagan in the 1980s. He read Lightman’s book “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” and thought his approach would appeal to a wide TV audience, like Sagan’s did.


“So when I read Alan’s words (in his book) that we could literally trace the atoms in our bodies back to particular stars in the sky, that jumped out at me as a great concept for a TV special, perhaps pushing beyond the poetic to the underlying science,” said Haines-Stiles. “Unlike some scientists, he’s not doctrinaire and close-minded, and his specialty is creating language to share his excitement at learning new things with his readers. We hope that carries over to views in what is his first time as a TV host.”

Alan Lightman is shown with a humanoid robot in one scene from his new three-part TV series. Photo courtesy of “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.”


A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Lightman grew up being fascinated by both science and the humanities. He built remote control rockets as a child but also read poetry and short stories. His mother was a Braille typist who translated books for the blind, and his father owned movie theaters.

He entered science fairs and writing contests while in school, and won prizes at both. He went to Princeton to study physics and after graduating got his doctorate in physics from California Institute of Technology. He later worked for the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, doing research, but also began publishing poetry and essays in magazines, including in The New Yorker. In 1992, he published a novel called “Einstein’s Dreams,” which became a best-seller. It’s a fictionalized account of a young Albert Einstein, troubled by dreams as he works on his famed theory of relativity in the early 1900s. He’s written seven novels and a book of poetry, a memoir and more than half a dozen books on science.

With his rare dual expertise, in 1989 he was appointed professor of science and writing, and senior lecturer in physics, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His is currently professor of the practice of humanities at MIT.

Alan Lightman shows viewers that the materials in our bodies would cost only $538.66. Photo courtesy of “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.”

His latest book, “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” is due out in March. It’s similar in approach to “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” and his research for this latest book was also used in the PBS series.


Lightman bought his home in Maine in 1990 as a place for he and his wife – a painter – to “unplug” and disconnect from daily life. Lightman says his favorite activities while on the island are kayaking, hiking and looking out for turkeys, deer, osprey and other wildlife.

“I think being there really helps put me in a wonderful frame of mind, including when I work there,” said Lightman. “I think people are caught up in the frantic pace of everything, to the detriment of our spiritual life. My wife and I are very aware that most people don’t have the ability to get away to a small island. We know it’s a privilege.”

He wrote much of his book “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” while at his summer home and much of the new TV series was shot there as well.

“I hope it makes people a little more comfortable with science,” said Lightman of the series. “I hope it entertains people but also raises questions about where humans fit into all this.”

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