Lightman’s fiction serves as a ‘travel guide’ for the scientific world

Alan Lightman, popular novelist and MIT physicist, will deliver the ArtSci Council, Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi Lecture for Washington University’s Assembly Series. His talk, “The Physicist as Novelist,” will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 13, in Graham Chapel.

Throughout his life, Lightman has pursued two intellectual passions, writing and science. In his first novel, Einstein’s Dreams, published in 1993, Lightman attempts to convey the mind-set of a scientific genius. The work is set in Berne, Switzerland, in 1905. Einstein, then an unknown patent clerk, is working on the theory of relativity in his spare time. The book describes young Einstein’s dreams: visions in which time functions in bizarre ways with startling consequences. Lightman says of his work, “I feel that to most people the scientific culture is like a foreign country. I always enjoy writers who live in a foreign culture and try to convey that to a wider audience … That’s something I would like to do with the scientific culture.”

Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman

Einstein’s Dreams became an international bestseller. It has been translated into thirty languages and was a finalist for a National Book Award in fiction. The book also received wide critical acclaim. The Sunday London Times called the novel “dazzling,” and added “Lightman is exploring fiction’s deep space,” while The New York Times said that it “pulls the reader into a dream world like a powerful magnet.”

He has written several other novels, including The Reunion and Good Benito, as well as science texts and numerous scholarly articles in physics. Most recently, he published a collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, that capture his musings on the nature of scientific creativity. Lightman is known to be especially adept at exploring the relationship among science, art and literature. National publications such as The New Yorker and Smithsonian have published his essays.

Since 1989 he has taught physics and has directed the Program for Writing and Humanistic Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to that he taught physics and astronomy at Harvard University.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1970 with a degree in physics. He then earned a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974 and conducted postdoctoral work at Cornell University.

He is a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Graham Chapel is located just north of Mallinckrodt Student Center (6445 Forsyth Blvd.) on the Washington University Hilltop Campus. All Assembly Series lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, check the Web page at or call (314) 935-4620.