Brain Pickings

Alan Lightman on Science, Genius, and Common Sense


A homemade rocket, a Feynman fiasco, and why genius and common sense don’t always coexist.

Physicist Alan Lightman is one of the finest essayists writing today, the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT, and the celebrated author of both nonfiction and novels, including the excellent Einstein’s Dreams. At a special staging of the invariably wonderful science storytelling event StoryCollider for a recent event at MIT, Alan told a magnificent story about building a rocket from scratch at age thirteen, working with the great Richard Feynman as a grad student at CalTech, and partaking in a series of unfortunate events involving an amputee lizard astronaut, a monumental black hole discovery that perished on a black board, and a Feynman-Hawking rivalry decided by a cleaning lady. Miraculously, it all makes sense — more than that, Alan’s masterful storytelling leaves you with an ever-deeper awareness that the essence of science is not equations and a profound understanding of true science as necessitating more than meticulous calculations to thrive, to endure, and to matter. Please enjoy:

At the MIT event, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Alan. Mesmerized by his story, I asked him whether he had any visual ephemera immortalizing his teenage rocket. Though his original diagram was lost, Alan was kind enough to recreate it and dig out the original 1962 photograph of his finished makeshift rocket, shared here for our collective enjoyment:

Alan’s new book, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, comes out in early 2014 — start sharpening your neurons. Meanwhile, can join me in supporting the wonderful StoryCollider here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Share on Tumblr