IN A CAREER that defies convention, Alan Lightman has never been shy about pushing boundaries. As a theoretical physicist with a passion for writing, Lightman embodies what avant-garde science publisher and Edge.org founder John Brockman terms the New Humanist. This breed of person forms a part of a “third culture” of “scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, have taken the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Bruno Latour, Steven Pinker, and more recently Neil deGrasse Tyson, are New Humanists who have gained a level of influence and celebrity. But Lightman stands apart. His most recent work, a memoir entitled Screening Room: Family Pictures, is a good example why.
Prolific and timely, Lightman has published scientific research articles, popular magazine articles, essay collections, novels, short fiction, poetry, and now a memoir. This latest work may initially surprise readers familiar with his prior publications — not because of the genre, but because of the style. His personal life has often been featured in his writing, but usually as a way to explain a particular phenomenon — from what Nothingness means to providing a personal account on why theoretical physicists generally hit their peak by age 35. In this memoir, Lightman does not so much strive to provide answers or “truth” or dig into what each moment he describes meant or means, as to give the reader an entertaining narrative full of characters he clearly enjoyed writing about. He is still present as our guide — the voice, the humanism, and the strenuous attempt to understand people remain — but there is an overarching playfulness in the recounting, perhaps a result of dealing with personalities and interactions that Lightman posits cannot (and should not) be judged and rendered into hard cold facts from the past.
A partially fictionalized memoir, Screening Room presents the Lightman clan in all its vanity and glory in mid-20th-century Memphis. It begins with the worst type of family reunion, a funeral, and quickly transports the reader into a Southern haze:
Lennie lights a new cigarette […]. In my mind, I am sitting at the breakfast table with my grandfather, watching with delight as he butters my silver-dollar pancakes, then lathers on grape jelly and honey, finally sprinkling sugar on the entire concoction. Sweet as pecan pie. Muddy like the Mississippi River. Fragments of visions of Cotton Carnival. Elvis. Malco. BBQ at the Rendezvous. Someone moans from the pool, the next generation, and Lennie exhales a cool cloud of blue smoke.
Lightman’s place in the reunion is immediately clear: that of the outsider nostalgically reassessing the life he thought he had left behind. The pure science that has for so long been at the center of Lightman’s work is absent, beyond brief excurses. In its place is a room full of unpredictable people whose inner lives and histories play out upon the page, the family patriarch’s “phasma” — a word Lightman uses to refer to his grandfather’s spirit — prominently placed at the center of it all. Lightman goes back to Memphis to celebrate a life’s passage through time, away from the ivory tower of MIT, and this book is a celebration of life’s possibilities and the way we remember them. The film reel that is metaphorically at the center of the story stops and starts, jamming and showing us segments out of order or imagined, a keen allusion to the way our memory works. Lightman has built a career around exploring the mystery of the realness of life, and in this work he demonstrates not only the confusion and inherent limits in our ability to perceive our environment through our senses, but also the mess created in the way we store this information. We make sense of life through reinvention and revision, questioning and correcting and talking it over, much as in this book we observe and hear from one family member after another. This is perhaps the key point Lightman is trying to make: the past is forever changing.
The power of Lightman’s work lies in his ability to ground the reader, whether he is making accessible an esoteric field or subject, or defusing the heated rhetoric around some emotionally charged topic with intellect and reason. For example, in the essay “Inventions of the Mind,” in his collection A Sense of the Mysterious, Lightman asks why mathematics, an invention of the mind, seems to precisely describe and predict the natural world around us before we actually see and touch it ourselves. “How could that be? Surely we don’t invent the material world around us. But it often seems that we do. Or rather, it seems that mind often comes first, with matter catching up to it later.” It is this phenomenological intuition that connects Lightman with his readers. As he observes in the preface to his essay collection The Accidental Universe:
As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealously or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. […] We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.
We know we are in good hands when our guide is willing to acknowledge and address the philosophical conundrums we all face — especially in an essay collection that tackles topics ranging from multiverse theory to the competing claims of science and religion to our struggle with nature over time and change. You might come for the subject, but you stay for Alan Lightman.
And it is this aspect of Lightman and the other New Humanists that makes them such a powerful force for the public good (the ending of Lightman’s piece “Smile” — which addresses the limits of scientific knowledge when it comes to understanding human behavior — best illustrates this point). But Lightman asks us to take a different and surprising leap of faith with his memoir. There is no talk about things our senses can’t capture, or concepts we can’t wrap our heads around because they are too small, too large, too far away, or don’t obey the laws of physics. And it is unlike his novels: we aren’t asked to jump into fables as in Einstein’s Dreams or engage with a young and impressionable God as in Mr. g.
Instead, it is a question of trusting Lightman’s decision to embellish his own family history. Most anything he includes that you can find in a history text or guidebook is factual, but the greatest shock is that several of the more entertaining and memorable characters are fictive narrative additions. His premise that our memories are less about “facts” than about how we process and continually reshuffle them supports this choice and is a more powerful rationale than his comment in the acknowledgments section about an “impulse for drama.” Some readers may take this in stride, but for others, it may be like finding out that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny does not exist.
“We were talking about M.A.,” says Uncle Harry.
“Ah, yes,” says Nate.
“And the beginning of the family business.”
“Mysterious circumstances,” says Nate. “Mysterious circumstances.”
“Mysterious to you, my sweet,” says Lennie.
“The facts are the facts.”
Morris A. Lightman, the author’s grandfather, referred to as M.A., serves as the focal point for the family’s life in Memphis. Everyone in Screening Room, especially the author, seems to be in awe of the man. His success stems from the movie theater empire he built in the South beginning in 1916. It is in his house, though he has passed away, that the family gathers to reminisce. The book is composed of 10 sections, each divided into multiple snapshots ranging from Alan’s parents’ youth and meeting, to Blanche’s pecan pie recipe, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — the pinnacle event that caused young Alan to vow never to move back to Memphis.
Screening Room is full of historical references, and even Elvis Presley makes an appearance, working at a rival cinema. But the true power of the work lies in Lightman’s emotional intelligence. Even (or maybe especially) in distinguished and successful families, there is a time for potty humor alongside business and intellect. The humor in the book (the ducks “crapping all over the floor” at the wedding reception) is placed alongside deep reflections on our human condition:
A photograph shows my parents walking hand in hand […] my father bare-chested and uncharacteristically self-confident, my mother wearing a one-piece bathing suit with an anxious smile on her face, as if wondering whether she’d made a mistake.
And even beyond giving us poignant moments of description — revealing more about Lightman’s relationship with the characters than about the characters themselves — Lightman is at his best when he presents situations that need no elaboration, as when a bereaved widow descends the stairs with “red, swollen eyes,” she blurts out, “He was only a boy when I met him.” Or this description of an imperfect relationship in its final days:
While Mother rested fitfully in her bed, Dad sat beside her, reading. He acted as if she had a minor illness, like a cold, and never departed from his daily routines. Sometimes, she would ask him to lie down beside her, and he silently did so.
My personal favorite moments stem from those in the present tense, when the elderly members of the family stick to their routines, reminding us that beneath their elderly veneer remains a collection of impressions and memories seemingly oblivious to time.
It is late afternoon, and Aunt Lila has come down from her nap. She must be in her mid-eighties. As she walks into the room, all of the males instinctively rise from their chairs. Uncle Harry gives her a frisky pat on her bum, which she returns with a coquettish smile. “What a confabulation,” says Lila, using one of her favorite words and pronouncing it with a drawl so slow you can count each syllable lining up and waiting its turn to tumble out of her mouth.
Lightman’s design matches story with the randomness and pleasure of a memory or fact, brought back in the midst of a conversation. The culture of the area in this period is full of faults and embarrassments, and we hear how Lightman made the transition from a child engulfed in his world of science projects and poetry into a young man shouldering the burden of being a Southerner in the North. Despite his many successes and colorful career, Lightman knows that the most difficult aspect of life, the one we are aware of to a nauseating degree, is how little we can say and how powerless we are in the face of time. How do we come to terms with existence and its end? And how much of the dialogue in our heads can actually get out there? Despite what science and success and religion can give us, when saying good-bye, we are still left with a sense of guilt for the unperfect footsteps we’ve left on this Earth, especially when we are not the ones leaving just yet. On his tortured relationship with his father he writes:
After so many years of not being able to talk to this quiet and gentle man, I finally knew what I wanted to say. But I could not say it, or write it. I wanted to apologize. For fifty years, I had sliced deeper his wounds. I had been a silent partner in his humiliation. I wanted forgiveness. But I could not say it. I was ashamed. I wanted also to say that his life had not been a failure. And that too I could not bring myself to say.
Lightman adeptly guides us from asking the scientific question of how we as a species became human, toward the more personal and more difficult exploration of what it means, for each of us, to be human.