The physicist's life-changing revelation about religion

"Einstein's Dreams" author Alan Lightman tells about the humanitarian trip that made him a more spiritual person

Published May 15, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

“Outside the Book” is a sibling podcast to “Self? Help!,” where you will hear from authors about life away from the desk, stories from beyond their particular expertise, experiences they hold dear but have not yet committed to the page.

Growing up, people in my family often made a clear distinction between what you could learn in a book and what you had to learn from life. I don’t believe learning is that black or white, but I do believe the two ways of learning feed one another.

Three weeks before I graduated university, Annie Proulx, the writer of “The Shipping News” and  “Brokeback Mountain,” read on campus. I was one of the lucky students who had dinner with her before the reading, and during the elaborate meal, I was that insufferable idiot who tried to bring up every book I’d read in the last four years, to basically show off my insecurity.

Moments before her reading, as I was about to walk her onto the stage, I asked her if she had any advice for a young writer about to graduate in a few weeks. She didn’t hesitate with her answer. She said one word to me: “Live.”

I took that advice to heart. As much as I’m a reader, I’m also in the world, paying attention, waiting for my next unexpected adventure, and these two podcasts, “Self? Help!” and “Outside the Book,” reflect that marriage. With both, you’ll learn from books, and you’ll learn from life, and hopefully pass that knowledge on.

For Season 1, my first guest is Alan Lightman, the international best-selling author of “Einstein’s Dreams.”

“I guess you could say this story started around the year 2000,” Lightman says. “We made friends with a Unitarian minister who lived in Maine. He had been going to Cambodia for humanitarian work for a few years. In 2003 my daughter Elyse and I decided that we would like to accompany him on one of his trips to Cambodia. Basically because we wanted an adventure. When my daughter Elyse and I went to Cambodia for the first time in December of 2003 and followed this minister, one of the villages that he’d been doing some work in  this village about 100 to 150 kilometers from Phnom Penh."

Alan Lightman is a fiction and science writer, as well as a physicist. His research has covered black holes, stellar dynamics and relativistic gravitation theory, among other things. He went to Cambodia searching for adventure, and that's exactly what he found.

“A materialist like myself believes that the physical world consists of nothing but atoms and molecules and nothing more,” Lightman says. “Everything in the world obeys certain laws,  everything is impermanent, and the brain is rooted in materialism. We have about 100 billion neurons in our brain and each neuron is made of atoms and molecules and there's no magical essence in the brain other than that. That's what I believe as a materialist. But I also believe that there are things that are larger than ourselves that we can connect to.”

And it was in this village that Alan connected to something larger than himself.

“There’s nothing that I could do in my life that would equal the experience that I've had with this village,” he says.  “Am I a different person as a result of this experience? Profoundly.”

To hear Alan Lightman’s story, listen to Episode 1 of “Outside the Book.”

Learn more about “Self? Help!”, including how to subscribe, on our website.

By Terence Mickey

Moth storyteller Terence Mickey is also the creator and host of the "Memory Motel" podcast, which finds the drama in what we want to remember or forget. You can find Terence at @terence_mickey on Twitter  and Instagram at @terence.p.mickey.  

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