From Finite to Infinite

As a former trustee, the father of two graduates, and the sponsor of an enriching, decade-long lecture series called “The Hub at Middlesex,” Dr. Alan Lightman has indeed had “a long association with Middlesex,” as he said at the start of his evening chapel talk on April 23, 2019. Well-known and highly respected as an astrophysicist and educator, a novelist and essayist, and a social entrepreneur, Dr. Lightman came to campus to share some of the thoughts and experiences that inspired one of his most recent books, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.

He began by recalling one particular summer night when, on returning to that small Maine island by boat, he was mesmerized by “the dark sky bristling with stars.” Turning off the motor and running lights, Dr. Lightman lay down in the boat and gazed upward. “I felt like I was falling into infinity, merging with the stars,” he related. “I felt the vast expanse of time was compressed to a dot, and I felt connected to the entire cosmos.” This “transcendent experience,” as he later called it, gave him some understanding of “the attraction of the ethereal” – something that he had not often considered as a physicist who saw the world as being made out of material that operated by certain logical, provable laws.

“For thousands of years, humans have been torn between the material and the immaterial,” Dr. Lightman reflected, adding that people seem to want there to be something material that is permanent. “I think this tension is the source of science and religion,” he proposed.

Having discussed cosmology and physics at length with a Buddhist monk he befriended in Cambodia, Dr. Lightman has discerned that “science and religion differ in the way that truths are discovered.” While believers find the wisdom of divine beings in sacred books like the Bible or the Quran, he noted, “The physical world is the province of science,” where theories must be tested by scientific methods. “All laws of nature are considered provisional,” Dr. Lightman added, “to be revised when we get better information.” Newton’s theory of gravity, for example, was revised by Einstein, whose theory will, in turn, be modified to account for quantum physics. “The irony is that our knowledge of science is uncertain,” he observed, “while religious knowledge is certain.”

Ultimately, Dr. Lightman has recognized that “what I’m doing is looking for patterns and meaning” – in effect, searching for the meaning of life with the assumption that “meaning has to have permanence.” Yet, as a physicist who realizes that materials don’t last forever, he knows that in a thousand or ten thousand years, not a trace may be left of seemingly eternal works like King Lear or the Sistine Chapel. “Maybe my premise is wrong,” he suggested. “Maybe meaning doesn’t require permanence.”

His ruminations naturally extend from the meaning of life to the certainty of death. “Immortality is not allowed by the laws of nature,” Dr. Lightman stated. “I’m a materialist, but I also consider myself a spiritual person.” How, then, does a self-described “spiritual materialist” confront his own impending death?

From afar, he explained, humans are an assemblage of atoms; with death, consciousness is gone, but the atoms remain. By this reasoning, he affirmed, “My atoms will still be here! They won’t know it, but they will be here.” He continued, “If I could label my atoms, someone could follow them. Some will be part of other people…and maybe some will return to the island in Maine.”

For thousands of years, Dr. Lightman reiterated, humans have been searching for meaning and the feeling of connection. “This is part of what makes us human, and that’s why it’s important,” he concluded. “We need to take time out of every day to get centered and be still with our thoughts, to think about what we want to do with our lives. That’s a challenge of the modern world.”