Book review: ‘Screening Room: Family Pictures,’ by Alan Lightman

Jack Hitt in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_1007 Feb. 16 10.49Back when NASA ruled the Earth, Alan Lightman was a 13-year-old kid, and in his Memphis back yard he built the coolest rocket. He concocted his own fuel mixture and ignited the thing with a flashbulb from a Brownie camera. There was a tiny astronaut’s capsule, of course, which held a garden lizard. He’d need to get the lizard back down to Earth, NASA-style, so he packed in a parachute and devised a way to separate the capsule from the rocket at its peak.

A small explosive was connected by a vial of mercury which, upright, offered no contact. When the rocket hit its apogee and naturally shifted into a horizontal position, the mercury flowed across the vial and connected the wires. The capsule blew free and clear, as planned, and floated successfully back down — except that the final discharge burned off the lizard’s tail.

Ingenious, really, but the way Lightman tells it in his insightful memoir, “Screening Room,” it was like that old Scottish joke: “Do they call me MacGregor the shipbuilder? Nay!” Instead, the boy with the sly workarounds is still hounded by friends to tell the one about the “friggin’ lizard.”

In any other memoir, this story might be presented as some crucial life turn that drove Lightman into the world where he wound up: theoretical physics. But “Screening Room” — the latest book from the author of “Einstein’s Dreams”— violates most of the tedious conventions of the memoir genre.

More here.