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Science and the Human Spirit

By Alan Lightman

Pub Date: Jan. 18th, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-42320-6
Publisher: Pantheon

Eleven essays on science, especially physics, and its relation to the humanities.

Physicist and novelist (Reunion, 2003, etc.) Lightman brings both his disciplines to bear in these pieces, reprinted from the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere. The subjects range from the abstract (the role of metaphor in science, the lure of pure mathematics) to biographies of eminent scientists (Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller) to personal observations (how it feels to be past the age of creative work in one’s scientific field). Lightman observes that scientific language is concerned with giving things their right names, and that scientific prose steers its way from one paragraph to another with topic sentences in which the idea to be explored is stated and named clearly and firmly. In fiction, by contrast, the power of language is used to create emotion and sensation—there can be such a thing, in a novel, as too much clarity and precision. On the other hand, in both science and the arts, there can also be moments when the magic of creativity seems to flow unimpeded: Lightman is especially taken with the way this can happen in math. One essay discusses the career of astronomer Vera Rubin, who graduated from Vassar in the late 1940s and found herself all but shut out of her chosen profession. Rubin’s chilly reception was typical of the male-dominated sciences at mid-century, even though her work led to the discovery that much of the universe is made up of dark matter, unseen mass that shows in the rotation of the galaxies. Finally, Lightman examines the feeling of entrapment in an accelerating “wired world,” working more hours and having less and less time to be human, arguing that we can become more human only by setting our own priorities.

A thoughtful and evocative collection, Lightman’s first since A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court (1986).