Pi Day organizers are taking the celebration to another level this year with more events than ever, including a Pi Day book group, a violin contest, and trolley tours of Einstein’s neighborhood. But perhaps their biggest coup is getting writer and scientist Alan Lightman to kick off the celebration Friday night at the Princeton Public Library.
It’s hard to think of a better headliner for the celebration than Lightman, who studied physics at Princeton, wrote a best-selling novel about Einstein, and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lightman will give the talk “ Science and the Humanities” in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Friday. His talk will cover the similarities and differences in the way scientists and artists view the world. He will also be signing copies of two of his books, Einstein’s Dreams and Mr g.
“The humanities are always looking for new ideas and there’s no better source of new ideas than science,” Lightman said in a phone interview. “On the other side, science being influenced by the arts and humanities, I think arts give us the metaphors to describe our experience with the world. Though science deals mainly with the quantitative, there is a descriptive element and we have to use metaphors to do that.
Lightman graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1970 with a degree in physics. He received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974 and was a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Cornell University from 1974 to 1976. He was appointed a professor of science and writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989, making him the first person to be appointed to both science and the humanities. Much of his work has reflected this duality, emphasizing the human side of science.
“I’ve always been interested in both the humanities and science from a young age; it seemed natural that I’d be interested in the human side of science,” he said. “I’m interested in science as a human activity. The emotional commitment that scientists make is very important, but isn’t something that’s talked about much.”
Born in Memphis, Tenn., Lightman said he attended Princeton University for a number of reasons in addition to the school’s top notch reputation.
“I wanted a liberal arts university and when I went to Princeton in 1966, there was a strong tradition of southerners going to Princeton,” he said. “I knew a few other people from Memphis who were going to Princeton.”
Although he majored in physics at Princeton, Lightman said his time there also helped shape him as a writer.
“I love the physical beauty of the place. It’s a beautiful campus. That meant a lot to me as a budding writer, just the feeling of the place,” he said. “I took a lot of humanities and philosophy courses. I think those courses had a strong influence on me as a writer. My fiction is philosophical and I’ve always been interested in philosophy. I think the courses I took helped inform that.”
As a scientist, Lightman said he used to struggle to balance his writing with his scientific research. He ultimately decided to give up research to focus more on his writing.
“In the early 1990’s I stopped doing research in physics,” he said. “I was probably past my prime as a theoretical physicist. I think most theoretical physicists do their best work under 40. When I passed that age, I could kind of see that my power as a physicist was declining.”
According to Lightman, his choice to combine science and the humanities is rather logical, with the two often helping each other develop. He quoted the novelist Salman Rushdie, who once said that science has always been a very fruitful source of ideas for writers. Lightman also said that Einstein explicitly credited Scottish philosopher David Hume with inspiring his theory of relativity.
Lightman’s many works include the highly acclaimed 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams, which gives the fictionalized account of 30 dreams that plagued Albert Einstein while he worked on his theory of relativity, and his newest book, Mr g, which was published in January and tells the story of the creation of the universe from God’s perspective. He has also written works on astrophysics, poetry and numerous articles in publications like Harper’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly.
When he is not teaching or writing, Lightman works to raise money for a nonprofit he founded called the Harpswell foundation that provides leadership education and living arrangements for women in Cambodia. Much of Cambodia’s educated class was killed by the Khmer Rouge government in the 1970’s. The Harpswell Foundation, which operates the only two women’s dormitories in the country, chooses the best and brightest Cambodian women out of high school and teaches them leadership and critical thinking skills. Lightman, he was inspired to start the foundation when he met a Cambodian woman named Vaesna Chea.
“She told me that when she was going to college in the mid 1990’s, she and the other female students had to live under the college building,” Lightman said. “There is a 6 foot crawlspace under most buildings in Cambodia that separates them from the mud underneath. She and the other women lived there for 4 years.”
Lightman said he is looking forward to returning to Princeton for the Pi Day festivities that also a celebrate of Einstein’s birthday. And does the scientist and novelist think Einstein would enjoy all the attention the annual affair receives in Princeton?
“I think he’d be amused and pleased,” Lightman said. “I think he really did like attention, even though he sometimes acted like he didn’t. When he was a young man, and we have letters now that he wrote when he was a young man, it’s pretty clear that he had a high opinion of himself. He would have enjoyed the attention, but I don’t think he would have strutted around.”
For a full schedule of Pi Day weekend events and deals, visit www.pidayprinceton.com.