Alan Lightman

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

“Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. […] Nothing is whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still.”

Alan Lightman (born November 28, 1948) is an inexhaustible guide to the limits and bounds of our self-knowledge. In Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he grapples with more personal matters: How do we begin to matter if we are merely stardust?1

Lightman (whose surname has never been more fitting) slips into a feeling of eternity when he looks at the stars. Experiencing what poet Mary Oliver called “going upstream” and biologist Rachel Carson, who, also standing on the Maine ground, considered a deep moment of wonder.

I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die—seemed compressed to a dot.

When does the accumulation of atoms form a being? When do nerve endings form a soul? If matter is condensed to nothing (or expanded to include everything), is there anything else?

Thus, if we relentlessly divide space into smaller and smaller pieces, as did Zeno, searching for the smallest element of reality, once we arrive at the phantasmagoric world of Planck, space no longer has meaning.

As Lightman questions the threshold of life, of meaning, of the unknowable divine, he zeros in on boundaries. The beginning of certainty, of knowledge. The limits of the universe, of time, of our materiality, and, most of all, of what exists outside our consciousness, in what novelist Vladmir Nabokov called “eternities of darkness.”

There is a human propensity to anchoring ourselves in place, in certainties—an island in Maine, in objects we keep around us, and in memories of home. While Lightman acknowledges this, he also argues it is only when we slip free from our anchors that we experience true meaning.

Now isn’t enough. We want to go beyond the moment. We want to build systems and patterns and memories that connect moment to moment to eternity. We long to be part of the infinite.

“How I wanted to be that sky—to hold every flight and fall at once” from poet Ocean Vuong. Astrophotography in Yosemite, taken by professional composer and photographer Andrew Watts.

Imagining and considering eternity in this way is akin to extending our consciousness beyond the mortal limitations. Of course, death stands in the way. And must be considered. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his unparalleled consideration of mortality, “I don’t have a body, I am a body.”2

For a deeper read on our death awareness, I recommend Robert McCrum’s Every Third Thought or the meticulously and compassionately researched The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe about great writers at the end.

the violet hour
“At the violet hour, when the eyes and back turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits, Like a taxi throbbing waiting…” from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Violet sky over Lake Michigan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Lightman doesn’t dwell on death as our primary boundary to the infinite as much as these books do, but I think he’d agree that facing our mortality is the core of any search for meaning. Read more in my thought piece Our Unknowable Real Mortality.

Accompany Lightman’s contemporary questions with wisdom from the Classical stoics, who believed humans were part of a larger fabric, or verse on the beautiful human continuum as expressed in the luminous contemporary poetry of Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.3 The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars is my collection of those who, like Lightman, have looked to stars for meaning and positioning. These ever-fixed marks…

Alan Lightman