Scientist/novelist  Alan Lightman
Scientist/novelist Alan Lightman

The Ambidextrous Brain

For proof that categorizing people as "right brain" or "left brain" is pure artifice, look no further than Alan Lightman. As a teenager, he built rockets and wrote poetry, and those two interests have changed little in the past 30-odd years. The John E. Burchard Professor of Science and Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has written not only nonfiction texts such as Origins and Ancient Light but poetic ruminations like Einstein's Dreams, which launched his literary career.

Unlike many scientists-turned-authors, who naturally gravitate to "the literature of science," otherwise known as science fiction, Lightman always has been startlingly aware that the written word is at its best when focused on human experience. Literary elitists who rarely hide their disgust with what they see as sci-fi's willing sacrifice of characterization to the gods of nifty gadgets and clever ideas will find little to complain about in Lightman's works.

"Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images," begins one chapter of Einstein's Dreams. Then, when even respected "idea" writers such as Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges would continue this mental mind game, Lightman turns immediately to human detail: "A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse of the ocean….A woman lying on her couch with wet hair, holding the hand of a man she will never see again."


Alan Lightman talks on "At the Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and the Humanities" on Wednesday, January 31, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, University of Houston, entrance no. 16 (off Cullen Boulevard). Free. To reserve seating, call (713)743-2255.

"Scientists are more interested in the brain, while artists look to the heart and stomach," Lightman told The Pentagraph. The heart, the stomach, the brain -- they're all part of us. Lightman, like few other writers, understands we need all three to be living, breathing human beings.


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