Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

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Nonfiction Science: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

 

Theoretical physicist. Novelist. Professor of both science and humanities. These are the biographical bona fides of Alan Lightman, author of National Book Award Finalist novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” But the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is also profoundly human, and questions of the eternal, the immutable, the transcendent, dwell in his mind as they do in the minds of most people.

 

Searching for Stars is a deeply personal book. Lightman considers questions of faith and eternity from the perspective of a scientist, but also from the perspective of a man entering his later years. Science answers many questions for us, but certain ultimate questions cannot be empirically answered or experimentally tested. Lightman recounts conversations with persons of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. He looks at sacred texts from those faiths. I cannot say he finds the answers he is looking for, but the process of asking the questions is intimate and compelling.

 

One answer Lightman does find is that science itself is an act of faith. Every faith holds central a series of absolutes: doctrines and credos which may not be provable but are inseparable from the faith itself. For example, Jesus cannot be removed from Christianity. You can have faith, you can even share many of the tenets of Christianity, but without Jesus you have something other, something different from Christianity. Science also has absolutes. One of those is that natural laws always work. If they don’t work, they are not laws. Gravity is always gravity. It always works. It doesn’t take days off, it doesn’t work on earth but not on Alpha Centauri. Because natural laws always work, they allow us to predict natural behaviors. Planetary orbits can be determined mathematically because gravity is a constant. Alterations in orbits indicate other factors at play, such as the presence of moons, another planet, or quantum forces. When those other factors are accounted for, measurements confirm predictions. The law is the law.

 

Ultimately, though, we cannot “prove” that natural laws always work. It is possible, if only as an intellectual exercise, that somewhere in the universe is a place that does not obey the laws of gravity. Or those laws work every day of the week except Tuesday. But it is impossible to account for such a place, because every measurement we have, every theory we hold, every experiment we run, every observation we make both confirms natural law to work AND relies upon it working. We cannot escape the framework in which natural laws work without them no longer working. Thus, at the core of science, is an absolute that cannot be proven or disproven, but must rely upon faith.

 

If science itself is built upon a core belief, what implication does that have upon other articles of faith? Perhaps none. But Lightman speculates that perhaps scientists should employ a little more humility than some do when it regards areas of faith.

 

Lightman’s musings on meaning touched me deeply. He wonders whether impermanence is equal to irrelevance, a question I suspect every person asks as she or he ages. Has my life mattered? What defines this? Will I be remembered? If a civilization of ants lasted for 100 years, built an amazing city full of beautiful architecture, stunning works of art, literature, philosophy, then was completely wiped out by a storm leaving no trace of their existence, did they “matter”? Those are not questions science can answer, and Lightman knows this. Meaning and purpose cannot be measured or calculated. Each person will have to search for those stars in their own personal quest.

 

Searching for Stars is a beautiful, unexpected book. I can’t say Lightman found everything he was looking for. But sharing his journey with us is a gift, one that can encourage us all to explore those questions with every tool available to us.

1101871865

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

 

Book Review: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

Book Review: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

 

Nonfiction Memoir: Many people were surprised to read that 7% of astronaut Scott Kelly’s DNA had changed during his year in space. Among the surprised was Scott Kelly himself, who tweeted, “What? My DNA changed by 7%! Who knew? I just learned about it in this article. This could be good news! I no longer have to call @ShuttleCDRKelly my identical twin brother anymore.”

 

Fortunately (or not), Scott and Mark Kelly are still identical twins. The original headlines were misleading, a misunderstanding of early reports from yet unpublished studies comparing the twins during and after Scott Kelly’s year in space. Though his year in space may not have shuffled his DNA, it did provide a compelling backdrop to his memoir. Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of DIscovery, tells the story of that year. More, it tells the story of a man who challenged the odds and lived out his dreams.

 

Scott Kelly would not have been anyone’s pick to be a success in high school. An indifferent student and occasional troublemaker, he was turned down by most colleges. He credits the change in his life and direction to a book: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Reading about the first astronauts gave him a life goal: become an astronaut. He transferred to a university where he could participate in Naval ROTC and devoted himself to becoming a student and a Navy pilot.

 

Very often, successful people are portrayed as having been destined for success. Less often do we consider the obstacles and failures that come between us and our dreams. Scott Kelly’s memoir is honest, sometimes painfully so. He barely graduated from high school. His first year of college was so poor that he had to start again as a freshman when he transferred. He occasionally sabotaged his own opportunities by making poor choices, and more than once survived his own foolishness through luck or a timely intervention by a friend or family member rather than through his own efforts. That is not to say he did not deserve the success he achieved. But his story easily could have been one that ended badly, a life of missed opportunities and wasted potential. Most of us would not choose to read that story–but many of us have lived part of it ourselves.

 

After becoming a Navy pilot, Kelly’s career advanced and he was eventually chosen to become a space shuttle pilot. Once the space shuttle program ended, he went on to become part of the International Space Station mission, and in this role participated in a year-long mission along with cosmonaut Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko. The goal of this mission was to study the long-term effects of space on the human body.

 

Eventually, humans are likely to explore the solar system through manned missions. Even a mission to our closest planetary neighbor, Mars, would take more than a year in space before arriving. Given the changes human bodies experience during shorter times in space, it is still an unanswered question how well people would be able to function upon arriving at Mars. Kelly and Kornienko have proven that humans could survive a journey that long and could re-acclimate to gravity at the end of the trip. What remains uncertain still are the long-term effects of the journey. Hopefully the ongoing studies of these two men and others will prepare us for the next stage in human exploration.

Other Works Mentioned in Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe

Nonfiction

Covers the early period of the US space program, Project Mercury, the first operational manned space flight program based on interviews with astronauts, their wives, test pilots, and other key personnel.

In 1983, a PG movie adaptation was made that won 4 Oscars. For more on the movie adaptation see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-right-stuff

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Alfred Lansing

Nonfiction

The story of leadership and teamwork necessary to survive the crossing of Antarctica in 1915 by explorer Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men. Lancing used survivor interviews and personal diaries to create this account. Scott Kelly took a his copy of Endurance to the space station.

Gravity

A  2003 science fiction thriller rated PG-13 which won 7 Oscars and another 232 other awards or accolades. A dramatic story of two astronauts stranded in space. For more on this movie see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/gravity

The Martian

Andy Weir

Science Fiction

Assumed dead and abandoned, Mark Watney must find a way to let Earth know that he is still alive and find a way to survive until rescue. For more information on the book see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/the-martian

For more on the 2015 PG-13 movie adaptation which won Golden Globe awards for best picture and best actor, see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-martian

If you are going to have an astronaut movie marathon, it won’t be complete without the classic  Apollo 13 which won 2 Oscars and numerous other awards. Based on the true true story of NASA’s persistence and determination,  “Failure is not an option” to bring three astronauts back to earth after an accidental oxygen tank explosion on the way to the moon. For more on this movie see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/apollo-13

 

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