The Future of Science: A Conversation with Alan Lightman

From the beginning of time, the quest for defining existence has been a universal struggle for humanity. Art, science, philosophy, and religion are some of the search engines used for this pursuit. Each time a scientific discovery is made, or a piece of art is created, we find yet another piece of the never-ending existential puzzle.

“In the next 100 years we will have some organisms that are half human and half machine.”

Physicist, novelist, and science writer Alan Lightman, author of the famed “Einstein’s Dreams” and the recently released “The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-century Science” (Knopf Canada, 2005), discusses in an interview his thoughts on the next great scientific discoveries, the controversial state of science, the marriage of art and science, and the different approaches of examining the world around us.

Born in Memphis Tennessee in 1948, Lightman received his degree in physics from Princeton University and his PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology. He is an adjunct professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

LiveScience: What do you think the next great discoveries will be? What fields?

Alan Lightman: It’s hard to know what the next great discoveries will be. In 1900, for example, I don’t think it would have been possible to predict that in the next 25 years that both relativity and quantum physics would have been discovered. It’s easier to say where the frontiers are for each science.

For example, in physics the frontiers are at string theory, which is a theory of the smallest elements of matter, an explanation of why particles have the masses that they do. Why the proton has the mass that it does.

In astronomy and also in physics the frontiers are in finding the nature of dark energy, which is this anti-gravitational force discovered in the last 5 years [it makes up the bulk of the total mass-energy budget of the universe].

In biology, I think understanding why stem cells begin specializing with some becoming liver cells and some becoming heart cells and some becoming brain cells. We don’t know why cells specialize. They all start out the same yet during the cell division process, they start going in different directions. We don’t understand that.

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I think biotechnology is a tremendous field for growth and new discoveries, combining inanimate matter with animate matter. I think in the next 100 years we will have some organisms that are half human and half machine.

LS: Do you have any idea who these people might be (the discoverers)?

No. I know some of the great scientists of today but don’t know who the great scientists of tomorrow will be. In string theory for example, one of the areas I mentioned, we know that a great genius is Edward Whitten who works for the Institute for Advance Studies in Princeton, and he seems to be the most brilliant of the physicists working in string theory. So it may be that either something that he’s already done or something that he will do in the next few years will be a great discovery.

LS: All these great discoverers sit on the shoulders of little discoverers, right?

Yes, that’s right. One of the problems of writing a book of this type where you focus on the great discoveries is that it tends to give the impression that all science depends upon a small number of geniuses and that’s not really true.

There are many people who work in science and whose works, although not necessarily of monumental importance by themselves, are all part of the great tapestry of science. And it’s true that all the great discoveries depend upon previous discoveries both big and small.

LS: Some people say science is under assault, with intelligent design, nonbelievers of global warming, lack of support for stem cell research, etc. Do you really think it is really under assault compared to 100 years ago, 200 years ago?

I think science has always been under assault to some extent. I think there are fashions in cycles in which science is attacked for a period of time and is embraced for a period of time and it’s attacked again. Generally attack against science is part of a greater attack against intellectualism in general. I think right now we’re in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again. I agree with you that we’re not seeing anything now that hasn’t happened in earlier centuries.

LS: Do you think it’s just human nature because we want to know, and science only takes us to a certain boundary and people have this need to explain how things work?

Yes, human beings have always had a need to find meaning in their personal lives and meaning in the world at large. If you look at the Cro-Magnon paintings and caves in Lascaux in France you could see that these people 100,000 years ago were searching for meaning.

“Right now we’re in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again.”

There are a lot of different ways of searching for meaning. You can search for it in religion; you can search for it in philosophy, you can search for it in science. And science will never fully satisfy most people because science has limitations. Science will never be able to explain why the universe is as it is. Science will never be able to explain what is right and what is wrong and moral and ethical behavior.

LS: But you always need a skeptic to come by later and push the boundaries of science.

Science is essentially a skeptical endeavor, and over the long run the way science proceeds is to be skeptical of received knowledge, to be skeptical of authority. But there are many interesting questions that don’t lie in the realm of science. For example, is there a God? Or what is the nature of love? Or would we be happier if we lived to be 1,000 years old?

These are extremely interesting questions. They are important questions. They are questions that provoke us and stimulate us and express our humanity but they are not scientific questions. They cannot be falsified. They are questions that you cannot test definitively with experiment.  So science has its limitations and there’s a great deal of life and human longing that lies outside of science. It’s a mistake to try to lump these questions in with science.

Science is very powerful but it has its limitations.

LS: In your books and interviews and essays, you constantly make the distinction between art and science and their intersection. I wonder if there is a distinction. When you want to cross a scientific boundary, it’s often an art to push it, especially in theoretical fields.

Well you have to be creative, just as you have to be creative in the arts. I think that science and the arts have many things in common but they also have some things that are different, and I think the differences are important and we should not try to obscure the differences. There are many different ways of being in the world just as there are many different cultures.

And just as we lose the richness of human existence by trying to homogenize the different cultures and ethnicities, we lose the richness of being human by trying to merge all the different disciplines including science and art.

I think scientists and artists are both searching for truth but they’re not the same kind of truth. The scientist is looking for the truth in the world of mass and force, a truth that exists outside of our human existence, a truth about the inanimate physical world. Whereas the artist is looking for an emotional truth, a truth that is inherently rooted in our human existence. The scientist is always at any one moment working on questions that have answers.

LS: If you could have discovered one of the great discoveries you name in your book, which would you pick?

Special relativity.

LS: Why?

“Science will never be able to explain why the universe is as it is. Science will never be able to explain what is right and what is wrong and moral and ethical behavior.”

Because I think that there is nothing more fundamental in human existence than time. I think we begin having experience with time before we’re born, in the womb. It’s fundamental. It’s primary, and to re-conceive the nature of time seems to me an exquisite experience.

LS: What novels/literature books would you recommend to scientists and vice versa?

Great question. [To the scientists] I would recommend “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino, “Blindness” by Jose Saramago, “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, and “The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam.”

And for works of science for non scientists, I would recommend first of all “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, “The Character of Physical Law” by Richard Feynman, and “A Mathematician’s Apology” by G.H. Hardy, the great Cambridge mathematician. Although that’s mathematics and not science, it’s a stunning book.

LS: Do you generally have your writing students read old or current literature?

Both. One of the mistakes that a lot of the American English departments make is that they don’t have their students read contemporary literature, and I would say this is a problem with high schools also, that you often in high school English classes read only the great classics and the great problem with this is that it gives students the impression that great literature is something that happened in the past, and in fact great literature is being created all the time.

Even now, there is some writer working away right now as we speak, writing great literature. And it’s important for students to understand that literature is a living thing and is being produced every minute.

LS: But there was a time known for its flowering of literature with an appreciation of writing and music that may not be as prevalent right now. So there’s a reason they go back to work from that period.

We have great literature that’s being written now and I think that we need to emphasize that it is being written now. I think that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a great writer. I think that JM Coetze, the South African writer that moved to Australia is a great writer. I think Don DeLillo and Phillip Roth in the United States are great writers, and of course there are many European writers and great Iranian writers who I just don’t know.

LS: Do you think there’s a lot of self-censorship with scientists?

I don’t think that scientists are censoring themselves. No. I think that you look at the frontiers of any pure science and people are following it wherever it leads. There was a censoring of bio-engineering, genetic engineering in the early 1970’s because people thought that maybe with genetic engineering they were unleashing new forms of life that could cause great damage. But since then, there’s been no censoring.

“There’s a great deal of life and human longing that lies outside of science.”

Scientists are very independent-minded. They are very anti-authority and they really bristle at the idea of censorship

LS: If you could live to see one great upcoming discovery, what would you like to see?

I would like to see an understanding of the nature of dark energy, which is a cosmic force that accounts for most of the material of the universe and I am certain that when we find that it will be a revolution in physics.

LS: Do you really think that there is a dark energy?

Yes, I do. There’s something very significant about the behavior of the universe that we don’t understand. Our experiments and observations show us that the expansion of the universe if accelerating, and that can’t happen with the traditional gravitational force. It would take some anti-gravitational force.

Whenever we try to calculate what would be expected of such a force we get wildly incorrect answers, so there’s a great disparity between theory and experiment. And in the past, in all the previous centuries in science when there’s a great disparity between theory and experiment you were on the verge of a revolution of a new conception. That happened with relativity theory, it happened with quantum theory.

LS: Some scientists say it’s not dark energy, but rather modifications in gravity.

Even if that were true it would be extremely interesting.

LS: So you just want the acceleration puzzle solved?

I want to see whatever it is. If it’s a modification in the law of gravity, I want to see that. But even that would be a great learning experience. It’s something that we don’t understand and scientists are always excited at things they don’t understand. It means they’re on the verge of discovery.