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.