Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.
I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.
When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.
Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.
In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.
“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”
Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.
Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.
I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.
Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.