Bill Chalmers, a fast-track corporate player, is fully wired. Cell phone-, email-, and voice mail-bound, 40-year-old Chalmers measures his productivity and worth in the volume of gigabytes he can process. Relentlessly trying to accomplish a never-ending wave of business tasks, he parses his life into three-and four-minute increments, 24/7. His wife has been having an online affair for two years with a man she’s never met in the flesh, and he and his teenage son are more prone to communicate via technology than in real-time, face-to-face encounters. Just another day of hyper-efficiency in the whizzing Information Age.
Chalmers is the lamentable protagonist of The Diagnosis, the third novel and twelfth book by Alan Lightman, who teaches creative writing at MIT and who focuses in this book on the impact of technology on people –– “technology using us rather than we using it,” as he puts it. In Lightman’s Kafka-esque narrative, a runner-up in the National Book Award for fiction this year, Chalmers soon has a meltdown, losing his memory, his senses, and his sense of connection, all to a condition with no name and no clear identity.
The tale, says Lightman, “is a modern American tragedy. We are losing our centeredness and our soul, our sense of who we are, where we’re going, and our values.” Quoting Henry David Thoreau on the domination of technology, he adds, “‘We don’t ride the railroad. The railroad rides us.’ Most people don’t have 30 minutes in a day where they can just reflect on what’s important to them — what they should be doing with their lives, what their priorities are. When we don’t have time to think about who we are and where we’re going — both as individuals and as a society — we’ve given up something tremendous.”
SCIENTIST AND NOVELIST
A physicist by training — Lightman was a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics prior to coming to MIT in 1989 — and author of six non-fiction books on science, as well as the 1993 bestseller, Einstein’s Dreams, Lightman speaks of his character’s incapacitating numbness as a “metaphor. When people are walking down the street talking to their cell phones or sitting in restaurants talking to their cell phones, they are not where their bodies are. They’re somewhere else. They’re nowhere, actually. They have lost a sense of being.”
Lightman distinguishes this sense of disembodiment with that which accompanies moments of creativity, whether they occur while writing or while conducting abstract science. “You become oblivious to your surroundings, oblivious to your ego. You become a pure seeer. It’s a floating state of consciousness and one of the greatest thrills there is.”
Feeling lucky that he has been able to develop both aspects of himself — the scientific side that seeks definite answers to well-posed questions, and the emotional dimension that explores questions that have many or no answers — Lightman aspires to have his MIT students “see the world more completely, to get them to pay attention to their emotional lives, to revalue their intuition and instincts. If I can help them do that, even a little bit, I feel I’ve accomplished something.”
The power of instinct was driven home while Lightman was at his vacation home on a small island in Maine, a place he and his family have been summering for the past 10 years.
With no roads or bridges, no phone or fax, the island is also a haven to a family of ospreys, who had built a nest in a tree about 100 feet from Lightman’s own house. For seven years, Lightman has been observing the cycle of osprey life from the aerie of his second-story deck: The mother osprey tending the nest, the father fishing for food, both feeding their fledglings, the young birds learning to fly — at first awkwardly, then more elegantly. Two summers ago, something incredible happened. “The babies, who had never left their nest, had been eyeing me on my deck, my nest, for two months. When they started flying, they did a couple of loops in the air. They flew right at me, right over my head. For about half a second, they made eye contact with me. I had never had any contact with another non-human animal that was that intense. It was a look of acceptance and love — as if we were brothers. It happened just like that, and then they flew off and were gone.” Describing the experience as spiritual, Lightman intends to write a book, philosophical in nature, about what he learned from living with the ospreys — after he finishes the novel he is working on and another book on landmark scientific discoveries of the 20th century.
The topic of living in tune with nature, a study in contrast to the miasma evoked in The Diagnosis, highlights Lightman’s goal in life. “I want to live life day by day, to really know I’ve been alive in the world. A consciousness is such a brief flicker in time; I don’t want the world to rush by me. At bottom, I want to change the world in big ways as well as small, which is one of the reasons I write. I’m very ambitious that way. The kind of power I want is to change people’s minds and thoughts.”