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Cultivating Awe: A Shared Sense of Wonder

Alan Lightman explores the similarities and differences between scientists and artists.
September 1, 2005

A Sense of the Mysterious:
Science and the Human Spirit

By Alan Lightman
Pantheon, 2005, $23.00

Alan Lightman thinks of the mysterious as crucial to human creativity–including his own, which is informed by his passions for science and art. In the study of his 18th-century home in Concord, MA, where he lives with his wife, his two daughters, and a Tibetan terrier, he is discussing his new book of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious. A professor in writing and humanistic studies, Lightman says that a sense of the mysterious is necessary to our spiritual survival.

He is concerned about how physicists and novelists cultivate this sense, which he associates in his book with the “sense of awe” we feel when we stand “at the edge between the known and unknown and gaze into the cavern.” Lightman describes the wonder he felt as a young boy in Clark and Fay’s supply store in Memphis, TN, “adrift in the aisles of copper wire, socket wrenches, diodes, [and] oddly shaped metallic brackets,” as if he were in a temple. He writes that as a graduate student at Caltech he worked on an original problem in a windowless office without sleeping. Until he discovered the solution, he felt as if he were “sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind.” Suddenly, he felt that a great hand had grabbed him and flung him across the surface.

In science, he writes, “we are blind people, imagining what we don’t see.” The artist, similarly, often evokes what we may know but are unaware we know. Transformations occur in the work of both scientists and novelists. “Those in science,” Lightman explains, “talk about slow accumulation of knowledge, transformation of our understanding of the outside world. In art, it involves a transformation of the inner world.”

The scientists whose stories Lightman tells are those who have inspired him. The lives of Einstein, Feynman, and Edward Teller are all marked by stubbornness and erratic emotional choices.

But however intriguing these personalities may be, what matters is their discoveries. Lightman says that science and art have points of convergence, but “the differences in both are profound and wonderful. Anyone working in physics has to take Einstein into account; we are diagnosing the truth of nature. However, a painter, after Picasso, can ignore cubism.” In A Sense of the Mysterious, Lightman writes that Kafka’s masterpiece The Trial is inseparable from the obsessions of its creator; but “if Einstein hadn’t formulated relativity, then someone else would.”

Lightman’s most provocative essay, “Prisoner of the Wired World,” argues that our technological culture became the tool of a capitalistic society and makes us prisoners. He writes about the dangers of our becoming “hamsters on the wheel of capitalism, production, demand, consumption, and work.” Lightman resists being caged and chooses a path where he can contemplate and explore questions that continue to haunt us. – By Carolyn Cohen