The Pleasures of Science and Art
“Ever since I was a boy my passions were equally divided between science and art,” said author Alan Lightman, setting the scene for his Friday evening talk at the Princeton Public Library. Mr. Lightman’s appearance was part of a series of events leading up to the community-wide observance of Pi Day, a celebration of the famous constant as well as the birthday, March 14, of Princeton’s favorite resident, Albert Einstein.
No one could question what seemed to be Mr. Lightman’s cosmically-aligned qualifications for the event. He is the author of Einstein’s Dreams (1993), a best-selling novel that has been translated into 30 languages. Currently a resident of Massachusetts where he holds a joint appointment in science and the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Lightman spent his undergraduate years at Princeton University (class of 1970). Later, his dissertation committee at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a PhD in theoretical physics, included physics superstar Richard Feynman.
Mr. Lightman’s talk on Friday evening focused on the similarities and differences between art and science. He was, he said, “fortunate to make a career of both.” He took part in boyhood experiments (including a Sputnik-inspired rocket project), as well as literary pursuits; when he showed his grandmother a poem he’d written about his grandfather’s death, he was impressed to discover that “marks on a paper” could be so forceful as to make someone cry.
While scientists seek to name things, artists tend to “avoid naming things,” Mr. Lightman suggested. Artists’ stock-in trade are concepts like “love” and “fear” that may not convey much to the reader. “There are a thousand kinds of love,” Mr. Lightman observed, and it is the author’s job to show “that particular ache,” rather than name it. “Each reader will draw on their experiences to understand the author’s meaning,” he said, adding that “a novel is not completed until it is read by a reader, and every reader completes a novel in a different way.”
Set against the sensual, hard-to-define experiences of art, Mr. Lightman described his love for the “shining purity” and “certainty” of mathematics, where there is a “guaranteed answer.” The area of circle, he reminded the audience, is πr2 andthere are “no contradictions.” The topic sentence that is essential in expository writing, he noted, is “fatal” in fiction.
What science and art do have in common, Mr. Lightman said, is the fact that “both seek beauty,” which is “hard to define in any field,” but “we know it when we see it.” Both art and science celebrate simplicity while trying to make sense of life’s complexities, he added. As an example of beautifully rendered fiction, Mr. Lightman described the scene in James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” when Gabriel Conroy recognizes the transcendent power of his wife Gretta’s love for a young man in her past.
Mr. Lightman reported that “the creative moment,” when he is totally immersed in his writing, occurs whether he is writing about science or writing fiction. He then becomes “pure spirit … oblivious to everything.”
In his talk, Mr. Lightman, who was introduced by Library Director Leslie Burger, referenced poets Rainer Maria Rilke and his advice to “try to love the questions themselves,” and Walt Whitman’s realization of the “sweet hell” he anticipated when he knew he was destined to be a poet.
Einstein’s Dreams is a fictional collage of thirty stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as he worked in a patent office in Switzerland but was thinking through his theory of relativity. The New York Times review of the book described it as a “magical, metaphysical realm …. Captivating, enchanting, delightful.”
Mr. Lightman’s other novels include Good Benito; The Diagnosis; Reunion; Ghost; and his most recent book, Mr g, a creation story. His books on scientific topics include Origins; Ancient Light; Great Ideas in Physics; and The Discoveries. He has also published a book of poetry with the perhaps unsurprising title, Song of Two Worlds. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Nature, The New York Review of Books, and other publications.