Lightman: A Sense of the Mysterious

From Scienticity

Jump to: navigation, search
Scienticity: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Readability: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Hermeneutics: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Charisma: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Recommendation: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Ratings are described on the Book-note ratings page.

Alan Lightman, A Sense of the Mysterious : Science and the Human Spirit. New York : Pantheon Books, 2005. 211 pages.

This is a small collection of miscellaneous essays by scientist and novelist Lightman, originally published between 1984 and 2003. Three of the essays are lengthy book reviews that end up as biographical sketches of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Edward Teller. One, "Dark Matter", is a lovely portrait of astrophysicist Vera Rubin. "Inventions of the Mind" wonders why mathematics, seemingly a pure creation of the human mind, seems to describe the universe so well. Evidently, Lightman's interests range widely.

The most recent essay gives the volume its name, and it's also by far the best of the essays in this collection. "A Sense of the Mysterious" is a very personal rumination that tries to evoke the awe and wonder that Lightman -- and other scientists -- finds in science, relating it to his career and comparing it to what he gets from writing fiction. It's filled with insight.

I learned many things about science from Kip [Thorne, Lightman's thesis advisor at Cal Tech]. One of the most important was the concept of the "well-posed problem." A well-posed problem is a problem that can be stated with enough clarity and definiteness that it is guaranteed a solution. Such a solution might require ten years, or a hundred, but there should be a definite solution. While it is true that science is constantly revising itself to respond to new information and ideas, at any moment scientists are working on well-posed problems.

I often think of Kip's idea of the well-posed problem as closely related to Karl Popper's notion of what makes a scientific proposition. According to Popper, who was an important early-twentieth-century British philosopher of science, a scientific proposition is a statement that can in principle be proven false. Unlike with mathematics, which exists completely within its own world of logical abstraction, you can never prove a scientific proposition or theory true because you can never be sure that tomorrow you might not find a counterexample in nature. Scientific theories are just simplified models of nature. Such a model might be mathematically correct, but its beginning premises might not be in sufficient accord with physical reality. But you can certainly prove any scientific theory false. You can find a counterexample, an experiment that disagrees with the theory. And, according to Popper, unless you can at least imagine an experiment that might falsify a theory, that theory or statement is not scientific. [pp. 18—19[

Lightman tends to see science more as a social, shared quest than as the fruits of the work of a few geniuses.

Science is not an occupation for a person who wants to make a mark as an individual, accomplishing something only that individual can do. In science, it is the final measured number or the final equation that matters most. The important experiments are those that can be repeated over and over again, in laboratories all over the world, with the same results. The important equations are those that can be rederived by anyone with sufficient training. If Heisenberg and Schrödinger hadn't formulated quantum mechanics, then someone else would have. If Einstein hadn't formulated relativity, then someone else would. If Watson and Crick hadn't discovered the double-helical structure of DNA, then someone else would. Science brims with colorful personalities, but the most important thing about a scientific result is not the scientist who found it but the result itself. Because that result is universal. in a sense, that result already exists. It is only found by the scientist. For me, this impersonal, disembodied character of science is both its great strength and its great weakness. [pp. 27—28]

This beautiful and evocative essay – and the rest of the book to a slightly lesser extent – is an excellent antidote to the unusually common but mistaken belief that a scientific perspective on the world somehow takes away nature's mystery. Here Lightman describes the feeling he had following a contribution he had worked out:

Then, I felt a sense of mystery. I had shed light on a small corner of nature. Other scientists had illuminated larger corners. But there were almost certainly vast chambers and ballrooms that remained in the dark. many beautiful and strange things as yet unknown. In an article published in Forum and Century magazine in 1951, Einstein wrote, "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." What did Einstein mean by "the mysterious"; I don' think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I believe that he meant a sense o awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened. Just as Einstein suggested, I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery. [pp. 41—42]

-- Notes by JNS

Personal tools
science time-capsules