Creative License

It's only a matter of time in Alan Lightman's latest novel.



"My readers are Earthlings,” author (and Memphis native) Alan Lightman said recently and matter-of-factly by phone from his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

But there’s not an Earthling in sight in Mr g. Instead, there’s an 18-year-old girl from the innermost planet of a solar system in a universe known as Aalam-104729.

There’s a grinning, somersaulting beast named Baphomet, who knows an off-key mezzo-soprano when he hears one.

There’s Baphomet’s master, a devilish but provocative celestial creature called Belhor.

There’s another pair of celestial creatures: the comedy team of Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope.

And then there’s Mr g himself — aka God — in Alan Lightman’s latest novel, which appeared in hardback earlier this year and in paperback this past month, from Vintage.

The subject of Mr g: nothing less than creation itself and its creator — and yes, that’s Mr (no period) and g (lower case), because, as Lightman says, in contrast to the God of most organized religions, this God is a “modest fellow.” He’s not a “showy character.” He makes mistakes. He learns by trial and error. He wonders aloud to himself or in conversation with his bickering but lovable aunt and uncle. And he delights in his creation. But it pains him to see suffering in the world.

He’s also a mathematician, a physicist, and an artist — a philosopher, too, when Belhor poses the question of free will and the existence of good and evil. What Mr g is not, though: a visitor to planet Earth, because Mr g has yet to create planet Earth. And anyway, he’s not one to intervene on a personal level. That would, according to Lightman, be “grandstanding” and “too theatrical.” Mr g simply isn’t that kind of guy. Hasn’t he, anyway, already done enough?

Out of his “playground” of ideas, the Void, he’s taken emptiness and turned it into somethingness. He’s introduced time and space, and he’s organized them along a few fundamental principles. He’s invented the quantum. He’s come up with the notion of cause and effect. And out of electrons and photons, neutrinos and bosons, top quarks, bottom quarks, and squarks, he’s — in no time but in reality eons of time — watched the universe arrive at inanimate then animate matter, and he’s observed certain advanced life forms take on consciousness and, what’s more, self-consciousness. What’s left for us Earthlings to learn of the billions of galaxies and trillions more planets that make up Aalam-104729? That nothing lasts forever. But Mr g can always create new worlds. And he can grant to his most evolved creation, at the instant of death, a glimpse of eternity.

The boundary between science and religion has been an ongoing concern in Lightman’s writings, both fictional and nonfictional. One thing, though, for sure: Lightman knows his science. And he knows more than a thing or two about creativity.

As a student at White Station High School, he combined independent science experiments and writing poetry. He then went to Princeton to earn a degree in physics and to the California Institute of Technology to earn a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. In the mid-1970s, he did postdoctoral work in astrophysics at Cornell and at the same time began seeing his poetry published. An assistant professorship in astronomy at Harvard and a position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics then led to an appointment at MIT, where Lightman still teaches and where he earned a first in that school’s history: a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities. All this is in addition to writing professional papers and scores of essays on science designed for the general public; the novel Einstein’s Dreams, an international best-seller that’s been translated into more than two dozen languages and staged nationwide (including the University of Memphis); another novel, The Diagnosis, finalist for the 2000 National Book Award; and yet another novel, Ghost, which dealt squarely with the intersection of the physical and the spiritual.

It’s a topic — man’s approach to knowledge — that Lightman addressed in two talks he gave in Memphis in November. It’s a topic he discussed by phone in relation to his latest novel.

“I wanted to make Mr g consistent with science,” Lightman said. “And there’s one kind of religious belief that’s completely compatible with science. It’s a theology in which God does not intervene with the universe once he’s created it. A God who’s constantly intervening and performing miracles: That’s incompatible with science. But science can’t say anything about what created the universe.”

What can Lightman say about his own religious leanings? Simply put: “I consider myself a spiritual atheist. I think I’m a spiritual person, and I understand the meaning of spirituality. It’s an important value in my life. But, no, I don’t believe in the existence of God.”

And yet throughout Mr g Lightman draws from multiple religious traditions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist. He borrows from Sanskrit and the Arabic. Despite being a “spiritual atheist,” he’s done a remarkable job conveying the majesty of creation, especially so at the subatomic level. And he’s been careful to portray Mr g in an informal but respectful manner. Some readers, among them creationists, Lightman is also willing to admit, may be offended. But it just goes to show: “The problem with creationists is that some of them make statements about the physical universe that are simply contradicted by the scientific evidence.

“All statements about the physical universe fall within the realm of science. And with science, something’s either true or it’s not. But of course there’s a lot we believe in that does not fall within the realm of science — things that are not subject to rational analysis. There are moral issues that fall within the realm of religion.”

And then there are the issues that fall within the realm of imaginative fiction. One such issue: audience.

“Writing Mr g was delightful,” Lightman said. “As a writer, your primary audience is yourself. And unless you’re writing a ‘formula’ book, it’s best not to think about your outside audience, at least in the first draft. If you can amuse or intrigue yourself, that’s a good sign.”

Another good sign was Lightman in the process of writing Mr g: “I had a curious sensation writing this book. I decided to treat Mr g as an ordinary character in a novel, and one of the things you try to do as a novelist is to inhabit your characters. So, I actually did have the sensation of being all-powerful. I could make anything happen.

“Starting out, I did know the largest arc of the story. But at the beginning, I didn’t know the subplots — the way Mr g would react to intelligent life or the kinds of arguments he’d get into with Belhor. I didn’t know what Mr g’s feelings would be about his creation. That’s something I let bubble up to the surface. His aunt and uncle were there, though, from early on. Mr g could converse with them, which would bring out his character.”

An aunt and uncle, then. Not a mother and father?

“That would bring up too many questions,” Lightman admitted. “The father of God? I didn’t want to get into that murky territory.”

This semester, Lightman is teaching a course at MIT in science writing. Last semester, he taught a class in fiction. But when he arrived at the school more than two decades ago, he was teaching physics.

The humanities and the sciences are different pleasures but great pleasures, Lightman said of his work with students. And he added:
“Greater than teaching, though, is research and writing. Both are creative pleasures. I don’t do research in physics anymore, and I miss that. But I’ve been really lucky in my life as a scientist and as a writer. Part of that luck has to do with the teachers who encouraged me to do both and the institutions that allowed me to do both.”

Something also says that Mr g, should he exist, would approve. 

 

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