Alan Lightman, professor of the practice of the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be the keynote speaker at Ithaca College’s 50th anniversary of the C.P. Snow Lecture Series at 7 p.m. on Nov. 7 in Textor 102.
Lightman was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment as a professor for both the sciences and the humanities, according to his biography on the MIT website. His essays on physics and astrophysics have been published in numerous scientific journals, and his novel “Einstein’s Dreams” was an international bestseller that has been translated into 30 languages, according to the MIT website.
The C.P. Snow Lecture Series began in 1964 in the School of Humanities and Sciences at the college when professor Robert Pasternack dedicated the lecture series to Sir Charles Percy Snow, who was a renowned British scientist and author, according to the college’s website. It is the longest running lecture series at the college, and its mission is to bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences, according to the college’s website.
Staff Writer Joe Byeon talked to Lightman about his interest in both the sciences and humanities, the similarities and differences he sees between the two subjects and his upcoming visit to the college.
Joe Byeon: How did you discover your passions in both science and humanities?
Alan Lightman: I discovered that at a young age, maybe when I was 10 years old. I didn’t think anything was unusual about it. I had a range of interests, and it wasn’t until I got to high school that I began noticing that it might be unusual because I had two distinct groups of friends. I had my science friends who I did science projects with, and then I had my art friends who acted in school plays, wrote poetry and read unassigned readings.
JB: During your college years, it seems you focused more on the sciences by majoring in physics at Princeton University, but you’ve done work in both sciences and humanities afterwards. How did you manage to stay active in both fields of studies?
AL: When I graduated from college I thought it would be best, initially, to put most of my effort into science because I knew some scientists who have later become writers, but I didn’t know of any writers who later became scientists. I figured that if I wanted to be a professional scientist, I had to do that early in my life. So, from about 1970 to early 1980s, I put most of my emphasis on scientific researches, but I continued to write and be interested in humanities on the side.
JB: Do you see a divide between humanities and sciences?
AL: First of all, I think all of us are capable of both science and the humanities. I think all of us have some skill and interest in both and we are pushed one way or the other through our friends, teachers and so on. But I do think there’s a scientific type of person and an artistic type. I think the scientific type of person is the rational, logical and deliberate kind of person who wants to know the reasons for things, wants to know questions that have answers. What I call the artistic or the humanistic type of person is someone who is willing to live with more ambiguity, they’re more spontaneous, more intuitive, and I think those are two different personality types.
JB: Is it the similarities that you find in humanities and sciences that draw you to study the two topics? Or is it the difference between the two?
AL: I love both the similarities and the differences. I find that the way that they are alike and not alike stimulates my thinking. For example, I think that both sciences and humanities are seeking truth, but I think that the truths are different. For the scientists, their truths are in the world of masses and forces, and animate and inanimate disembodied things. In the humanities, I think all the truths are ultimately about the human mind, the human condition and the human experience. So, I find that very interesting to think about those differences. A similarity between the two is the creative moment when you’re having an insight and making a discovery, whether science or humanities, that feels exactly the same.
JB: You initiated the communications requirement at MIT that made all undergraduates take a writing or speaking course. Was this to further integrate science and humanities?
AL: That was one of the aims of the new requirement. It was also to give the students at MIT a better appreciation for the importance of communication. Science and technology dominate our world today, and so things have become more interdisciplinary. For example, environmental science involves not only biology and chemistry but also sociology, politics and economics. It’s very important in this interdisciplinary world for scientists, engineers and technologists to be able to communicate beyond their own specialty and to talk to people in other disciplines. So, that was one of the aims of the new communication requirement at MIT, to make our students more well-rounded.
JB: Do you think other colleges and universities are doing enough to integrate the science and humanities?
AL: I think that most liberal arts colleges, and Ithaca College is certainly one of those, automatically have a fair amount of writing that the students do. I do think that good public speakers have an advantage and so I think that communication skills entail not just being able to write well but being able to articulate the particular subject matter that you’re studying to people in other subjects. So, if you’re a chemistry major you should be able to talk about chemistry to an English major, in the way that he would understand. I think this is very valuable and it should be part of the curriculum in one form or another in all colleges.
JB: You speak at many universities and events. What made you choose Ithaca College as one of your destinations?
AL: C.P. Snow has been one of my heroes. I didn’t know C.P Snow from a young age, but I later learned that he was a physicist before he was a novelist. He was also a statesman in the U.K. during World War II. He’s been a figure in my life for a long time and [the C.P. Snow lecture series] is really exciting and interesting to me.
JB: Can you give us a preview of what you’re going to be talking about?
AL: I will be talking about the similarities and differences in the way that scientists and artists view the world. I’ll be talking about the different kinds of truths in the sciences and arts, and the different ways scientists and artists frame questions, as well as some of the similarities, like the feeling of the creative moment being exactly the same. That disembodied, ego-free moment when you’re discovering new things, it feels the same in the sciences and the humanities.