Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Novelist, poet, playwright, and physicist Alan Lightman talks about his less visible role: humanitarian

January 7, 2013 M.I.T. professor, astrophysicist, and New York Times-bestselling author Alan Lightman recently spoke to Inside Higher Ed, about the Harpswell Foundation, an organization he founded in 2003 to provide housing and leadership training to young women in Cambodia. The school’s first dorm and training center opened in 2006; a second followed in 2009. “It was partly accidental and partly not accidental,” Lightman, now sixty-four, said of the foundation’s inception. “I knew that I wanted to do some humanitarian work later in life, but this happened sooner than I was planning.”

Lightman was compelled to start the organization after talking to a woman who had attended Phnom Penh University in the ‘90s. She had to sleep in a crawlspace (which was as functional as grave, basically) with six other women. The conversation made Lightman recognize the massive problem of educating people in a country that had lost most of its academics to the Khmer Rouge genocide of the ‘70s. The Inside Higher Ed article explains:

“If you’re a woman living in the countryside, no matter how smart you are, if you don’t have a place to live in Phnom Penh, you’re out of luck,” says Lightman. He explains that while men can live in Buddhist pagodas while pursuing a college education, this option is not open for women. Furthermore, he says, even if a woman’s family can afford to rent her an apartment in Phnom Penh, concerns about safety often preclude them from doing so.

The Harpswell Foundation now occupies fully half of Lightman’s time, but the Memphis native has also been busy teaching, speaking, conducting scientific research, and writing. His most recent novel, Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation, received rave reviews. Lightman is perhaps best known for his 1993 debut novel, Einstein’s Dreams. The novel fictionalizes a young Albert Einstein and a series of dreams that led him to his theory of relativity. Lightman himself has a gift for writing about science for a mainstream audience and occasionally ventures some theories of his own.

To read Alan Lightman’s essay recalling the 1955 Cotton Carnival Festival, click here. To read Chapter 16’s profile of Lightman, click here.