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Physics and metaphysics, science and souls - 'Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine'

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While there can be conflicts between science and religion, there are commonalities as well. Both seek to find ways to make sense of the universe and our place within it, albeit in largely disparate fashion.

Author and physicist Alan Lightman seeks to spend some time searching for potential intersectionality between the two with his latest book, titled “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” (Pantheon, $24.95). Best known for the novel “Einstein’s Dreams,” Lightman has built a literary reputation – in both the fictional realm and the non – on finding ways to make lofty ideas relatable and engaging without being simplistic or condescending. This new book continues that trend as Lightman explores his internal contradictions with regards to the notions of logic and faith.

“Searching for Stars” takes the form of a meditation, a series of interludes of various lengths in which Lightman probes his own perceived understanding of the world and whether there might be more to it than what can be objectively measured. The inspiration for these interludes comes from the small island in Maine where he and his wife have spent the past 30-plus summers.

The catalyst for all of this is an evening not too many summers ago. Lightman was floating quietly in the ocean off the shore of this island. His small boat was all alone on that gently quiet stretch of water; it was just him and the night sky. Lying on his back, looking up at the stars, Lightman had a euphoric, epiphanic experience, a feeling of connection to something larger. Something immaterial, yet absolute.

The feeling inspired Lightman to start considering the nature of truth and what is real, whether there is such a thing as an absolute or if every truth is a relative one. That consideration is the fulcrum upon which the thesis of “Searching for Stars” balances.

Lightman’s not afraid to go as far afield as is necessary to explore the ideas in which he’s interested. In one chapter, you might get a long look at Einstein’s theories of relativity. In another, you might learn about various religious notions of absolute truth via St. Augustine and other notables. There’s time spent in conversation with both renowned physicists and devoted monks – it’s as though Lightman is seeking the two sides of a very specific coin.

(There are two instances devoted to ants – “Ants” and “Ants (2)” – that have particularly stuck with me for reasons on which I’m not exactly clear. They’re equal parts parable and thought experiment and utterly fascinating.)

He spends a lot of time considering the atom and the way in which our understanding of it has evolved, from its long status as the smallest, indivisible fundamental building block to the current ever-growing number of subatomic particles and the often-counterintuitive spookiness of quantum mechanics. But he goes macro as well, investigating the changing perception of stars, the notion of the Big Bang and the possibilities of multiple universes.

Make no mistake – Lightman doesn’t believe this is a debate and doesn’t frame it like one. He remains firm in his belief in science’s ability to make sense of the world; it remains his own personal method for examining the universe. But his curiosity about the tenets of faith and how they have impacted and continue to impact societal perceptions are honest and very strong; he makes a conscious effort not to let his own beliefs actively negate those of others.

He’s also very honest about his idea of the Central Doctrine of Science. Essentially, it’s the belief that all aspects of the universe are governed by laws that hold true in every time and place in the universe. It’s the idea that laws of nature must be applied across the board. It’s also a notion that by definition cannot be proven, because there’s no way of knowing when something illogical by our current understanding might arise. That’s the whole point of science, to discover new things. And so, the Central Doctrine is itself an article of faith.

“Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” might be a short book in terms of literal length – just 240 pages including endnotes – but that page number belies its depth. These are heady concepts that Lightman is exploring, yet he does so with a high level of ease and engagement. And by using his longtime summer home as his framing device, there’s a gentle relatability; the idyllic island setting works wonderfully as a place to explore concepts from both sides of the divide.

Capturing the act of contemplation is a difficult feat no matter whether you’re a person of science, of God or of both. Putting intelligent introspection on the page requires a real nimbleness. Nimbleness of prose and nimbleness of ideas; Lightman demonstrates a flexibility of insight that helps elevate the discourse accessibly.

“Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” will make you think. It will also make you feel. You will think about your feelings and feel things about your thoughts. It’s a straightforward and sometimes beautiful rendition of a fascinating conceptual tangle, a chance to consider the myriad mysterious ways in which the universe works.


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