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Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Sense of the Mysterious

A Sense of the Mysterious:
Science and the Human Spirit
by Alan Lightman
224 pages

Way back on December 31, 2006 I read the following in an email from
Unusually gifted as both a physicist and a novelist, Alan Lightman has lived in the dual worlds of science and art for much of his life. In these brilliant essays, the two worlds meet. In "A Sense of the Mysterious," Lightman records his personal struggles to reconcile certainty with uncertainty, logic with intuition, questions with answers and questions without. Lightman explores the emotional life of science, the power of metaphor and imagination in science, the creative moment, the different uses of language in science and literature, and the alternate ways in which scientists and humanists think about the world. Included are in-depth portraits of some of the great scientists of our time: Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and astronomer Vera Rubin. Rather than finding a forbidding gulf between the two cultures, as did the physicist and novelist C. P. Snow fifty years ago, Lightman discovers complementary ways of looking at the world, both part of being human.
Lightman’s book went on my TBR list that very day … and I’ve just now (in 2009!) read it.

Before we go any further let me say right here that I am about as far from a scientific person as you can get. In high school I was a great humanities student but almost failed Chemistry. Biology was over my head as well. I don’t understand scientific laws, especially the more abstract ones that deal with things I can’t see. I’m not curious about how things work or what lies beyond our known universe. But I found this book fascinating and easy to read and THAT should be a ringing endorsement to other non-scientific people out there.

The book is a collection of Lightman’s essays previously published in a variety of magazines, all of which deal with the convergence of science and personal creativity and drive. Some essays talk about the process of discovering scientific laws, some explain the laws themselves, and some deal with particular scientists.

My favorites are those last ones, the ones about scientists such as Einstein, Feynman, and Rubin. The essays were like mini-biographies and I enjoyed “getting to know” these people, most of whom I’d never heard of before. I was especially struck by the story of Vera Rubin, the astronomer who discovered dark matter. She is one of the very few female scientists to combine a successful career with a successful family. (The grad student who writes at A Lady’s Scientist's blog recently opined that few people can name any female scientists other than Marie Curie. I was guilty of that flaw, but now I can name Vera Rubin – and she is WORTH naming!)

Reading this book caused me to add two additional books to my TBR list: IDEAS AND OPINIONS, by Albert Einstein (1934) and SURELY YOU’RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN!, by Richard Feynman (1997). So it is one step forward and two steps back on the TBR list …

I’m very glad that I read this book and I would definitely recommend it. It gave me a glimpse into a world that is completely foreign to me and it made me want to know more. That, for me, that is the sign of a good book.


Amanda said...

I'll have to read this one. I just read his book Einstein's Dreams and I really liked that. I loved that he writes in way that's very easy to read and understand. Thanks for the review!

Heather J. said...

Amanda - I thought of you when I was reading this one because I remembered your recent review of Einstein's Dreams. I think you'd enjoy this one too.

Florinda said...

I was going to mention Einstein's Dreams - have you read it? It's an odd little novella, but I liked it when I read it years ago.

I'll have to add this to my list. I like writers who make science approachable; Dava Sobel is another one who's very good at that.

Heather J. said...

Florinda - I've not read EINSTEIN'S DREAMS but Amanda also recommended it so I'll have to think about it.

Dava Sobel is one of my favorite authors, for the very reason you mention. I've reviewed a few of her books here before.

If you like Sobel then you'll like this book - in a way, it reminds me of her book THE PLANETS - they both have the same feel in my opinion.

Literary Feline said...

The hard sciences are not my forte either, but your endorsement of this one has me really curious. Thanks for the great review.

Heather J. said...

Literary Feline - Even though some (MOST!) of the concepts were way over my head, I did enjoy the essays in the book. As Florinda said above, Dava Sobel is another easy-to-read science author - I highly recommend her books as well.

Anna van Gelderen said...

Do you know Cosmos by Carl Sagan? I am very much a mathematically challenged humanities person, but I was really bowled over by Sagan's book when I read it some 10 years ago. It was my first book about science and it set me on the road to reading lots of other science books, even ones about string theory and chaos theory.

Heather J. said...

Anna - I've heard of Sagan's book but I've never read it. Thanks for the recommendation!

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