February 22, 2011

Dreams of Relativity

Print More

You may have met a poet that likes to look at the stars, but have you ever met an astrophysicist that also writes poetry? Monday night presented an opportunity to meet such a person. Alan Lightman ’76, an MIT professor, writer and astrophysicist, gave a reading of a section of his yet-unpublished. Lightman is best known for his international best-selling novel Einstein’s Dreams, which is a retelling of a series of dreams young Einstein might have had while working on his theory of relativity. Each dream is a different conception of how time works, and collectively they inspire Einstein to continue his scientific work. Einstein’s Dreams is an interesting examination of a concept as universally familiar as time, and it exemplifies the way Lightman combines science and fiction writing in his work.

Lightman grew up in Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s, and in his own words, “experienced the explosion of Elvis Presley, the beginnings of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King.” His lecture was an opportunity to hear a personal version of events and experiences most of us only read about in historical books (or on Wikipedia). Before reading from his memoir, the author also spoke about the “two happy years” he spent at Cornell as a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics. It was at this time that he began trying to publish some of his poetry in literary magazines, but was often rejected. He kept all his rejection letters in a drawer in his desk and liked to show them to girls he brought home — a smooth move that more people should employ. It worked for Lightman, because he ended up marrying one of them.

In his Southern drawl, Lightman told the audience that, like many writers, he finally felt the need to write a memoir. This came not out of vanity and self-importance, he said, but out of a need to consolidate different parts of his life to feel whole. However, only 80 percent of his memoir is completely accurate. He took artistic liberty on the remaining 20 percent in making uninteresting family members more exciting and jazzing up some personal events, citing the inaccuracies in footnotes. Lightman used the quote, “A well-told lie is worth a thousand truths” as an inspiration for this type of memoir.

The author read parts from two chapters of his book on Monday night. One told his memories of his grandfather’s younger days as a hunky hot-shot and cinema-chain owner, and the other was about the many husbands of his scandalous aunt Lenny. Parts of the chapters also delved into historical events of the time — racial tensions, the Memphis music scene and Elvis’ rise to fame. Full of flowing descriptions and character studies, sections of the book felt more like a novel than a diary, although the events Lightman wrote about are clearly dear to him.

After the reading, audience members were encouraged to ask questions. A student asked if Lightman was worried that some of the things he wrote into his memoir would cause tensions or anger between his family and himself. To this Lightman replied that he was not planning on publishing for “several years” out of that worry. In the meantime, however, interested readers can pick up Lightman’s other writings of poetry or prose. They could perhaps even read his papers on relativistic gravitational theory and the structure and behavior of accretion disks.

Original Author: Jackie Krasnokutskaya