Without curiosity as a driving force, the mysterious would likely never be understood. Intense curiosity is what motivates, distinguishing the scientist and rocketeer, the mathematician and the astronomer, from the passive majority. They constantly ask, “What if…?” and then build upon the answers that their predecessors have unveiled.
In A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, Alan Lightman embraces the sense of awe that leads to scientific discovery. Citing Albert Einstein, who called curiosity “the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” Lightman reveals his duality, conveying how as a physicist and a novelist he seeks to understand both physical nature and human nature.
In this collection of 11 essays written in the past 20 years, Lightman introduces his personal pantheon of scientific heroes, all of whom famously tinkered with scientific ideas. Among them are Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and Vera Rubin, all of whom, in addition to having been highly original thinkers, overcame some type of discrimination, often anti-Semitism. In recounting their discoveries, Lightman does not seek to intimidate the reader with complexity. He writes so lucidly that someone with barely more than basic familiarity with the sciences can understand the significant concepts he introduces. With his novelist’s pen he gives texture to the personal lives of these magical achievers. Studied under Lightman’s microscope, they become more human, more approachable, as when he summarizes Einstein: “(He) was both a man of high principles and an opportunist, a loner and an activist, a liberal and an elitist, a great theoretician and a practical examiner of patents.” Or when he writes: “…there are two Edward Tellers. There is a warm, vulnerable, honestly conflicted, idealistic Teller, and there is a maniacal, dangerous and devious Teller.”
Understandably, Lightman values the precision of mathematics, but he can also appreciate the imprecision of words. For example, in one essay he contrasts the identical qualities found in different electrons with how words illuminating an emotion such as love differ from one another. At the hand of a skillful writer, a reader can be led to feel an emotion based on his own experience, without relying on the name given to an object or concept as the scientist does, confident that its properties will be identical each time. It is this synthesis of science and art, biography and philosophy, that makes this such an interesting book.
Noel Kriftcher was a professor and administrator at Polytechnic University, having previously served as Superintendent of New York City’s Brooklyn & Staten Island High Schools district.