When Alan Lightman was asked to host a new science series for PBS, he at first politely declined.
A physicist, novelist, and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he is involved in straight-up science documentaries that restate what we already know about the materials and elements that make up our world. He told the producer that he had no interest in doing so.
But if they want a series that explores the human side of science, its moral, spiritual and philosophical implications and connections, he’ll be very interested. This is the approach he took in his book Looking for the Stars on the Island of Maine, and was inspired by the time he spent at his summer cottage on a small island in Casco Bay.
It turns out that the director of the proposed series had read Reitman’s book and wanted exactly the same approach for the PBS series. Lightman has signed on as a host. This three-part series of his is called “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science,” and on Saturday he will begin his on-demand streaming on PBS.org. Airing on the PBS World channel beginning January 17, he will be on air three times in a row on Tuesday nights.
Reitman, 74, said he hopes the series will bring science closer to people in ways that impact their everyday lives. He knows that science can become broadly polarized, with scientific statements made by the “elite” of universities and governments becoming skeptical by many.
“I hope our series will help people have conversations in healing ways by showing the human side of science,” he said, living in Concord, Massachusetts when outside of Maine. Lightman said. “We talk about the moral, spiritual and philosophical aspects of science in our world.”
Journey to find connections
To connect the science of the series with so many other fields, Reitman traveled the world and spoke with various historians, religious leaders, scientists, and more. He explored caves in France to see paintings made by humans thousands of years ago, and talked about the Dalai Lama and human consciousness, and whether it could be replicated by computers and robots. He traveled to Florence, Italy to show how Galileo’s observations nearly 400 years ago changed centuries of belief and that the Earth and Moon are made of the same material.
Reitman was filmed on a boat and at his home on the island of Maine, staring up at the night sky and wondering what secrets lie there. He didn’t want to name the island to protect the privacy of its residents.
For more specific science in the series, Lightman visits one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots. He spent time at his MIT McGovern Brain Laboratory, investigating techniques that capture changes in the brain in milliseconds, explaining how such techniques capture transcendental experiences and falling in love. I pondered whether I could. He says on camera that he doesn’t think they can.
In one segment of the first episode that combines science and everyday life, Reitman explains how the elements of our bodies originated in the stars. He then went to the store and discovered that purchasing the materials that make up our bodies would cost $538.66.
Series producer and director Jeffrey Haynes Styles worked with astronomer Carl Sagan on the groundbreaking “Cosmos” series for PBS in the 1980s. He read Reitman’s book Looking for the Stars on the Island of Maine and thought, like Sagan, his approach would appeal to a wide range of television audiences.
“So when I read Alan’s words (in his book) that we could literally trace the atoms of our bodies back to a particular star in the sky, it popped up as a great concept for a TV special. It’s the underlying science,” said Haines-Stiles. “Unlike some scientists, he is not dogmatic or bigoted. His specialty is creating language to share with readers the excitement of learning new things. So I hope that carries over to the audience.”
rocket and poetry
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Reitman grew up fascinated by both the sciences and the humanities. He used to build remote control his rockets as a child, but he also read poetry and short stories. His mother was a Braille typist who translated books for the blind, and his father ran a movie theater.
While in school, I participated in science fairs and writing competitions and won awards in both. He went to Princeton to study physics, and after graduating from Caltech received a doctorate in physics. While he later did research at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, he began publishing poetry and essays in magazines, including The New Yorker. His novel Einstein’s Dream, published in 1992, became a bestseller. This is a fictional story about young Albert Einstein, who was working on his famous theory of relativity in the early 1900s, and is haunted by dreams. He has written seven of his novels and one of his poetry collections, a memoir, and more than six of his books on science.
His unusual dual expertise earned him the appointment of Professor of Science and Writing and Senior Lecturer in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1989. He is currently Professor of Humanities Practice at MIT.
His latest book, The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science, will be published in March. Similar in approach to Finding Stars on the Island of Maine, research in this latest book was also used in his PBS series.
Reitman purchased a home in Maine in 1990 as a place for him and his wife (a painter) to “unplug” and disconnect from their daily lives. Reitman says his favorite activities on the island are kayaking, hiking, and watching turkeys, deer, ospreys, and other wildlife.
“I think being there really helps put me in a great frame of mind, including when I’m working there,” Reitman said. “I think people get caught up in the crazy pace of everything and it’s ruining our mental lives. My wife and I know very well that most people can’t escape to a small island. We know it’s a privilege.”
He wrote much of his book, Looking for the Stars on the Island of Maine, at his summer home, and many of his new television series were also filmed there.
“I hope people get a little more familiar with science,” said Reitman of the series. To do.”