As founder of the Harpswell program, physicist, author and humanitarian Alan Lightman is leaving his mark on education in Southeast Asia
Dr. Alan Lightman has made a substantial mark on education in Cambodia in the two decades since his first visit to Southeast Asia. Indeed, as founder and former board chair of the Harpswell programme in Phnom Penh, he has been honoured for his humanitarian services by the governments of both Cambodia and the United States.
Lightman is a physicist, prolific author and host of the public television series Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science. Although he has made his home in the Boston area since 1977 — as a professor first at Harvard University, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — Lightman still speaks with the gentle accent of a native Tennesseean.
His first 2003 journey to Cambodia, at the bidding of a Unitarian minister friend, was life-changing. In the small village of Tramjung Chhrum in Kampong Chhnang province, he was approached by mothers who asked his assistance in building a school. “I was very impressed that the people believed in the power of education, even though they had nothing,” Lightman said. The school continues to operate today. Soon thereafter, he met a Cambodian lawyer, Cheay Veasna, who told him of her travails attending university in Phnom Penh in the ‘90s: As there was no lodging for female students, she and others were forced to live in a crawl space beneath the institution. “That really inspired me,” he said.
When Focus Cambodia caught up with Lightman last week in a Zoom conversation, he spoke about the inspiration and thought that led to the establishment of Harpswell, and about his commitment as a writer to bridging the gap between science and spirituality.
FOCUS: How did your experiences in Cambodia lead to the creation of the Harpswell foundation?
LIGHTMAN: I had never done anything like this before, either building a school or trying to build a dormitory. I’m an academic and a writer, and this was all new to me. But Veasna and I came up with the idea to build a dormitory for women attending university. The fact that I had already successfully built a school in this little village gave me a little credibility; I came back to the U.S. and I was able to raise the money to build the first dormitory. (This became Harpswell.) Then a few years later we built a second dormitory.
When we built the first dormitory, it was the only one in the country for female students. So I knew that we could have our choice of the brightest high-school students in the country. Having three dozen very bright young women in this facility for four years, that was a valuable resource, like finding oil in your backyard. Then I thought, I can do more than just give them free room and board: I can give them a programme in critical thinking and leadership skills, and thereby get a big leverage effect because each one of them can go out and do good things in the country. Then I’m helping not only these 36 young women, I’m helping the entire country.
So over the next two years, in 2006, ’07 and ’08, I developed an in-house programme. The students are required to take these classes in the evening and on weekends when they’re not attending their regular university classes. These classes constitute a second university degree because they’re rigorous; they’re different than what they get at their regular universities; and critical thinking is in short supply in much of Asia.
FOCUS: It seems this sort of programme could be made adaptable to other countries of the region, as well. I know you are doing something in Malaysia.
LIGHTMAN: I think in the long run that the programme based in Malaysia, which we call the Harpswell ASEAN Women’s Leadership Summit, is going to have a bigger impact than the Cambodia program. At least that’s my hope. It’s smaller in scale at the moment, but it has a great potential. It nurtures young women, age 25 to 30, from 10 countries in Southeast Asia, plus Nepal. We started that five years ago and we already have almost 100 graduates of that programme. We give them grants to do social entrepreneurship in their own countries. A number of them have started projects using the critical thinking and leadership that they’ve learned with our programme.
FOCUS: You have become a social entrepreneur yourself, but you are a physicist and a writer. What are some things you write on?
LIGHTMAN: I write on the intersection of science, philosophy, ethics maybe, theology you could throw in there; I write on the intersection of science and humanities. That’s the simplest way to say it.
FOCUS: And how does that relate to Harpswell? If I’m going to answer my own question, I’m going to say, they’re learning critical thinking. They are learning analytical writing. This is where to me it comes through.
LIGHTMAN: Well, you’re answered the question correctly, as far as I’m concerned. I would just add one more thing, and that is, as I have been in the academic world for a long time, I have some understanding of the parameters of an educational program. I think that background guided me in setting up the educational part of Harpswell.
FOCUS: Now, can we step away from Harpswell and talk a bit about your television programme?
LIGHTMAN: It’s a three-part series on public television. (It can be streamed from www.searchingformeaning.org.) First of all, you’ll learn some cutting-edge science. I interview some leading scientists, including physics and biology Nobel Prize winners. I also raise the philosophical and ethnic issues that science leads to. For example, if we succeed in building an artificially intelligent robot that seems to have all the attributes of consciousness, do we have any ethical responsibilities to that machine? Would we have to ask permission to unplug it?
And then, to pursue these ethical, philosophical and even theological issues, I also talk to leading ethicists and philosophers. I talk to faith leaders including the Dalai Lama. So what you’re going to get is a sort of contemplation and exploration of these human issues, the moral issues that are raised by modern science.
The series is based on a couple of my books, although we have a few things that are not in the books. In the last piece of Part 2, which takes place in Cambodia, I interviewed one of our Harpswell graduates, Sok Sothearath, who has started cultivating worms which provide fertilizer to farmers. She’s very entrepreneurial. She has sent both her worms and her worm fertilizer to over 1,000 farmers in Cambodia. It’s a business aimed at improving her society. It’s certainly not just to make money! It follows all of the aspirations of Harpswell, this business that she started.
FOCUS: What does the earthworm farm have to do with philosophy and ethics?
LIGHTMAN: Well, good question. The earthworm farm shows that science can be used to improve the human condition. Most of the other scientists that I’ve talked to are doing science that’s very abstract, like detecting gravitational waves, or trying to create a living cell from scratch, or trying to find the smallest subatomic particles. So director Geoff Haines-Stiles and I thought that all of that abstract science, though very exciting and part of our human culture, should be combined with some science that is more “earthy,” where they’re a direct benefit to people.
FOCUS: Which of your books do you recommend reading?
LIGHTMAN: Einstein’s Dreams is the book that most people know. The two books that the television series are based on are Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine and The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science. So if you have time to look at any other books, I would say that those are the two.
FOCUS: What are you working on now?
LIGHTMAN: One book is really finished, but it will be published in about a year. It’s a gift book called The Miraculous from the Material. It has something like 35 chapters. Each chapter stats with a full-colour photograph of an extraordinary natural phenomenon, like a spider web, a volcano erupting, or lightning, and then there’s an essay by me that explains the science behind the phenomenon. I say over and over in the book, even though I understand the science behind these phenomena, I’m still in awe of them.
The new book that I’m working on now is an attempt to show what scientists are like as people — how they live, why they do what they do, what their hobbies are, how they think. The tentative title is The Shape of Wonder. My intention is to show scientists are real people. I think part of the polarisation of the world is the mistrust of institutions (including) the scientific establishment. There’s a lot of mistrust of science and scientists in the world, and this book is an attempt to address that mistrust by showing scientists as ordinary people. Critical thinking is not owned by the scientific establishment.