MIT theoretical physicist and novelist Lightman’s latest work, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is a collection of essays that examine the state of modern physics and cosmology, and humanity’s place in the universe.
Why do you think so many people today are surprised by the idea of a scientist who also writes fiction?
I think we assume that science and art come from different sides of the brain and are fundamentally different activities. We associate a range of oppositional qualities to the “scientific” versus the “artistic” type of person: quantitative versus qualitative, logical versus intuitive, linear versus nonlinear, predictable versus unpredictable.
Did your success as an author—Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller—change the way you approached your work in theoretical physics?
In an indirect way, yes. I stopped doing research in physics a few years after I began writing literary books—mainly because I realized I had passed the apex of my work in science (theoretical physicists generally peak at a disconcertingly young age), whereas I had started this other creative career in which I could continue to improve for many years. There was a 10-year period in which I worked both as a scientist and as a writer, but I could not do both at the same time. When I was working on a physics problem, it totally occupied my mind and body, and I worked on it night and day for weeks or months until it was finished. Likewise, when I am working on a novel or long essay, I cannot do anything else; I am a total prisoner of the project until it is finished.
How does your writing process differ from the way you approached your physics work?
In science, the “well-posed problem” is one that can be stated with enough clarity and precision to guarantee an answer. It may take a decade or a century to find the answer, but we believe that there is an answer. In the arts, definite answers often don’t exist. Another difference is that scientists try to name things, and artists try to avoid naming things. Nevertheless, the creative moment, in which the ego is totally lost and time and space are lost, feels exactly the same.
You address the idea that technology, which is supposed to bring us closer, frequently separates—“disembodies”—us from reality. Do humans need to separate ourselves from tech to regain the “real” world?
I definitely do not think technology is the solution to our growing separation from the natural world. Nor do I think that we can, or should, divorce ourselves from technology. We need to take more time to examine our values, to live more consciously and deliberately as Thoreau said, and to try our best to shape our lives—including the use of technology—so that we preserve and support our values. Too often, we blindly use technology simply because it is available.