A Sense of the Mysterious

I’ve been enjoying reading Alan Lightman’s book A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit; I am nearly finished, with only a few essays left. The essays I liked best were the first few; these first looked at Lightman’s life and his experiences in science and novel-writing and then turned to his ideas about creativity, science, and language. There follows a series of essays on famous scientists including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and others. These essays are interesting, each one telling a little about the scientist’s life and contributions plus something about their quirks as people and as researchers, but I prefer the more theoretical essays that look at science more broadly. I think the remaining essays may turn again in this direction.

One of the things I love about the book is how sensitive Lightman is to what happens to a scientist when he or she is working, what goes on in their minds and how their bodies are involved in the process. He describes his own experiences of inspiration, the moment when he finally breaks through to the core of a problem and finds he can solve it, and the description is intensely physical:

Then one morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of myself. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame….

The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the draft goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.

This feeling is not unique to science, of course; it’s a feeling one can have in any creative moment, but it’s interesting to me that while science can seem so cerebral, Lightman draws attention to the way it affects the scientist’s body as well as his mind.

Not only does scientific discovery manifest itself physically in the scientist’s body, but Lightman says the scientific manifestations can be different than those of art:

Over the years, I have learned to recognize the different sensations of science and of art in my body. (Sometimes the sensations, such as the creative moment, are the same.) I know the feeling in my body of deriving an equation. I know the different feeling in my body of listening to one of my characters speak before I have told her what to say. I know the line. I know the swoop of a idea. I know the wavering note. Most of the time, these feelings all swirl together as a rumbling in my stomach, a wondrous and beautiful and finally mysterious cry of the world ….

Am I mistaken, or is this kind of writing, physical and mystical at the same time, not at all typical of science writing?

Not only does Lightman write about how the body is involved in scientific discovery, but he writes about emotion, too, and aesthetics. He quotes the mathematician Henri Pointcaré on the subject:

The privileged unconscious phenomena, those susceptible of becoming conscious, are those which directly or indirectly affect most profoundly our emotional sensibility. It may be surprising to see emotional sensibility invoked à propos of mathematical demonstrations which, it would seem, can interest only the intellect. This would be to forget the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. This is a true aesthetic experience that all real mathematicians know, and it surely belongs to emotional sensibility.

“Mathematical beauty,” “geometric elegance” — doesn’t this make you want to become a mathematician? It has that effect on me, at any rate. He goes on to talk about how Einstein and others were surely motivated by aesthetics when they looked for new theories, and he gives examples of scientists who judge theories based on their beauty or ugliness or elegance:

The Nobel chemist Roald Hoffmann tells his students that it is the awareness and appreciation of the “aesthetic aspects of science,” rather than mere quantitative analysis, that leads to discovery.

This makes me realize that science and art are not so far apart after all, which, I’m sure, is part of Lightman’s point.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

10 responses to “A Sense of the Mysterious

  1. What an intriguing and delightful book. And, yes, the portions of the writing you share do seem both mystical and physical. And to draw the body, emotion, and aesthetics into scientific discussion is quite remarkable. I wonder if you know Diane Ackerman’s work? A different sort of science writer, certainly, than your description of Lightman and his work; but like him she is grounded in science but yet at ease with body, art, emotion–and to similar effect, I think.
    Thank you for a lovely post.


  2. Yes, science and art both possess an aesthetic. These aesthetics are quite beautiful yet very different.


  3. I wish I had found mathematics harmonious and beautiful but I only struggled most of the time to grasp the concepts. I did find a kind of elegance in geometry, maybe that’s because it’s more graphic that say alegbra?

    I did enjoy Melvyn Bragg’s “On Giants’ Shoulders”, which also looks at the lives of a number of scientists from Archimedes to Watson and Crick. I see if I can find Lightman’s book.


  4. Sorry for the typos – my fingers aren’t as fast as my brain today.


  5. verbivore

    You’ve definitely sold me on this book. I will definitely hunt down a copy – his writing and his subject sounds wonderful. What you mention reminds me of another essay somewhere in my memory, but I can’t remember by who or where I read it (useful, I know!) but if I think of it I will let you know in case you might enjoy it as well


  6. Oddly, I find that kind of mystical writing in a lot of books about science and/or by scientists. Maybe it’s not really odd; of course a lot of people are drawn to that field by their sense of wonder at the universe. But it’s so different from the way science is taught in schools that we’re used to thinking it’s supposed to be dry and full of numbers!


  7. I think art and science are actually very much so related. Wasn’t Leonardo also a mathematician/scientist as well as an artist? I think knowledge of both could be quite useful and the concepts play off each other. I sometimes think I should audit a science class, but I’ve been too lazy to do it (and think the same about Lit classes). I do think it’s a very interesting subject. I need to look for something by Lightman as well.


  8. This sounds like a book I would really like. I am adding to my TBR list! I have often heard mathematicians mention the beauty and elegance of numbers and equations, and while it doesn’t make me want to be a mathematician, it makes me wish I could see the beauty they talk about too. I imagine what they see is similar to what I see and feel when I talk about beautiful words and sentences.


  9. I wouldn’t initially be drawn to a book like this but your wonderful review makes it sound so intriguing, Dorothy! And I did enjoy the novel I read by him. One more for the TBR pile, I fear!


  10. Deborah — thank you; funny you should mention Ackerman because I recently got a copy of her book A Natural History of the Senses. It looks fabulous!

    Kaz — I’m interested in learning more about how they are different — an interesting question I think.

    BooksPlease — for most of us it’s probably easier to appreciate mathematics from a little distance … Bragg’s book sounds quite interesting.

    Thank you Verbivore 🙂 I just finished the book and I enjoyed the last few essays — so I can now say the entire thing is quite good.

    Oakling — it’s really too bad that science is often taught badly! Interesting that science and mysticism often go together — I’m curious about other books similar to Lightman’s.

    Danielle — and I think about auditing math classes! Wouldn’t auditing be great? One of these days … and yes, Leonardo is a great example.

    Stefanie — I think you’d like it too, with all your science reading. And your analogy between equations and sentences makes perfect sense.

    Litlove — so sorry! 🙂 I think anyone who cares about aesthetics would enjoy at least the first few essays (but probably the entire thing, actually).


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