Alan Lightman (b. 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?
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 the 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, what exists outside our consciousness, in what novelist Vladmir Nabokov called “eternities of darkness.”
There is a human propensity to anchor 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 that 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.
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 Novel Prize Winner Wislawa Szymborska. “The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars” is my collection of those who, like Lightman, have looked to stars for meaning and purpose.