“Einstein’s Dreams” author and seasonal Harpswell resident Alan Lightman kayaks with his granddaughter Isabel.
People settle in Harpswell for many reasons. Back in 1989, Alan Lightman and his wife, Jean, were looking for a summer retreat “where I could write, and she could paint,” he said. The Lightmans wanted a place off the beaten track where they could “slow down and be in the moment.” After looking through several New England states, they heard about a property on a small island in Harpswell. Even though they knew nothing about island living, the MIT professor and his wife took a leap of faith and purchased the place.
It was the beginning of a beautiful long-term relationship.
Although he has many interests and accomplishments, Lightman, 73, is primarily a writer, a prolific one. During the four to five months of the year he spends in Harpswell, he often writes for six hours a day. He’s written eight novels, as well as essay collections, science books, magazine articles and a memoir about growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, during the 1950s and 1960s.
During one of his first summers in Harpswell, Lightman wrote his best-known novel, “Einstein’s Dreams.” It puts the reader into the overheated mind of young Albert Einstein, an obscure patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. Einstein’s musings about how time and space dance with each other would soon become known to the world as the special theory of relativity. “Einstein’s Dreams” has been translated into 30 languages, is a standard text in many college courses and has become a widely produced play.
In addition to being an acclaimed author, Lightman, a true polymath, pursues many other interests. Initially trained as a physicist, he’s made significant contributions to astrophysical theories about the birth, death and behavior of stars. He’s an educator, currently the professor of the practice of the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was one of the first professors to hold a joint faculty position in both the sciences and the arts.
In addition to his writing and teaching, Lightman is also an activist for social change. During a 2003 trip to Cambodia, he became inspired by the grit and determination of young women struggling to complete their college education in a male-dominated society. The foundation he launched to help female students in Cambodia now works to train a new generation of women leaders across all the countries of Southeast Asia. Lightman said that he named the foundation Harpswell after his favorite town because he wanted “an unpretentious name that represented my spiritual side.”
In all his work, Lightman moves fluidly between the analytic rigor of science and the spontaneous creativity of the arts, touching down in places where science, philosophy and spirituality overlap. He’s had this ability since he was a teenager in his hometown of Memphis, where he shuttled easily between his science-oriented friends and a gang of high school creatives.
As he roams around the half-mile island in Harpswell, he both enjoys and analyzes the natural world — calculating the heart rate of a hummingbird, for instance, or using a microscope to track insects as they commute through a square inch of forest. He views himself as a materialist, asserting in his talks and writing that “we’re all just atoms and molecules.” But he acknowledges that humans have spiritual experiences that we can’t explain by simply tracking the chemical and electrical responses of our bodies.
He describes one such experience that he had in Harpswell. Returning to the island one summer night, he turned off his engine and running lights and lay down in his boat, staring up at the starry sky. Soon, “The boat disappeared. My body disappeared.” He had the sensation of “merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity.” This brush with transcendence is described at the beginning of his book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.”
Lightman uses the episode as a jumping-off point for a series of essays that speculate, among other topics, on the origins of the universe, the nature of consciousness and the future of humankind. He takes us on a journey from the smallest subatomic particles we can measure to what occurs among the billions of stars in the billions of known galaxies. Wandering across the island one day, he was struck by the insight that the atoms present in our bodies have been around since the creation of the universe and will go back into the universe when we die.
He’s come to realize that his main occupation on the island hasn’t been reading or writing, but “figuring out if it all adds up to anything.”
As he’s grown older, Lightman’s view of what’s important has changed. He finds himself spending less time looking for permanent answers to big questions; he now thinks that “what matters is the moment.” Lightman sees the time spent in Harpswell each year as extremely important to his family’s well-being. It provides a deliberate way to retreat from a modern world that “moves so fast we’ve lost the ability to take time out and reflect,” he said. His two daughters and four grandchildren feel the same strong connection to their island home in Harpswell, ensuring it will remain a sanctuary for future generations after Alan Lightman’s atoms have been released back into the cosmos from where they came.
But since Lightman is still with us, he should have final say, which comes from his recent book, “Probable Impossibilities”: “Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on the writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the sun through the window. And, looking out, I can see a pine-needled path that goes down to the sea.”
Greg Bestick lives in Harpswell and serves as president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.