A Sense of the Mys­te­ri­ous: Sci­ence and the Human Spirit

  • Review
By – August 15, 2012
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.

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