Alan Lightman, 'Science and the Human Spirit' Physics and writing -- poet and scientist Alan Lightman joins us to talk about the intersection of art and science.
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Alan Lightman, 'Science and the Human Spirit'

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Alan Lightman, 'Science and the Human Spirit'

Alan Lightman, 'Science and the Human Spirit'

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of the hour, we're going to continue our talk on physics, the arts and writing. And why is it that artists and scientists seem to occupy different ends of the spectrum in our society? C.P. Snow talked about the two cultures in the 1950s. Is there common ground in these two pursuits? Is there a shared creative process, whether it be in finding an equation to describe the truths of nature or in writing a story to capture the truth of the human condition? Is the creative process the same? There are a handful of scientists who would later leave their marks in the arts. There was the writer Rachel Carson and, as I say, C.P. Snow. But artists-turned-scientists are rarer still.

And joining me now to talk more about it is someone who has experience, has the feet in both worlds. Alan Lightman is a physicist and a writer. His most recent book is "A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit," a collection of essays that look at the intersection of art and science. His other works include the novels "Reunion" and "Einstein's Dreams." Dr. Lightman is adjunct professor of humanities at MIT, and he joins us by phone today from Massachusetts.

Thank you for being with us again, Dr. Lightman.

Dr. ALAN LIGHTMAN (Author, "A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit"): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You describe--you write a very interesting--one of your essays. You write about experiencing the creative process in science and in writing. And you say there's sort of a common feeling when you get that `aha' moment in both of them.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes. It's almost an identical feeling. I've had it a few times. It's--you feel like you lose all sense of your body, all sense of your self, all sense of your ego, all sense of where you are, and you just seem to float. It feels sort of like being in a round-bottom boat and strong wind when the boats gets on top of the water and starts planing. And I'm sure that many of our listeners who have had a creative experience know that feeling.

FLATOW: In a novel or a creative moment in the arts, possibly you can see the end and you can see the story developing. Does that work the same in science? Can you see the line of reasoning developing in that creative moment?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Sometimes it's not a linear line of reasoning; sometimes you'll be going along and suddenly your mind skips and you see a connection between two things, and often a connection between one field of science and a slightly different field, or a way to apply some mathematics. But it's pretty much the same kind of floating...


Dr. LIGHTMAN: ...feeling, intuitive feeling.

FLATOW: If the feeling is the same, is the creative process different in the art and science?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: I think that there are some similarities and some differences. I believe that having a prepared mind is extremely important. There are just very few examples I know of important discoveries in science where the scientist hadn't sort of done his or her homework, so to speak. That still doesn't explain the leap that happens with a great discovery, but I think it's a necessary condition. And I think an artist needs to be prepared, too, in having at least the technical part of it under control.

One of the differences which is sort of obvious, is, I think, the science deals with the external world, with the world outside of our bodies and minds, other than the social sciences. And to me, the world of the arts deals with the inner world. So that is somewhat of a difference, and it also relates to how a discovery is proved or disproved. There's a certain objective proof in the outside world that you don't have with the inner world of the arts.

FLATOW: I had a math teacher when I was in high school who used to talk about solving a math problem elegantly.


FLATOW: Elegance of this--as if he were looking at a painting, you know?


FLATOW: There is this beauty--you know, we were talking with Richard Feynman's daughter, with Michelle, about the beauty that Feynman saw. I'm sure you must see the same kind of beauty in the sciences and the arts.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes. My wife is a painter, and she uses words like `unity' and `design' when she describes what she means by beauty with the arts. And those are very similar words that scientists use--the certain inevitability of an idea, a certain simplicity of statement that is a very candid aesthetic in the arts.

FLATOW: Using the fewest amount of brush strokes to get the effect.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes. And the same is--the fewest amount of equations to capture a theory in science. Sometimes our ideas of beauty in science don't turn out to be correct. For example, we once thought in the early part of the 20th century that the right-handed image of every object was identical to its left-handed image, called parity; that nature was equally right-handed and left-handed, which is a very simple and beautiful idea, but it turned out to be wrong. So nature doesn't always accommodate us on our ideas of beauty, which just shows that it doesn't all come out of our own minds, it's not completely a human construction, science. Sometimes we can be surprised and proven wrong.

FLATOW: Did you choose to first become a scientist and then a writer in that order?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: It wasn't really that deliberate a choice. I was interested in both the sciences and the arts from a very young age, from the age of eight or nine. And at that time, I knew of--well, a little bit later in high school and college, I knew of a few scientists who later became writers, like Rachel Carson--you mentioned her--or C.P. Snow. But I didn't know of any artists who later in life became scientists. And so I realized, although I didn't understand the reasons, that it would be better to get myself well-established in science first before turning my full attention to writing.

FLATOW: Yeah, and history is full of scientists who do their best work when they're very young.


FLATOW: So that would be a logical progression, then.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes. Yes, that's right.

FLATOW: You know--physicist done by the time they're 30, you know? (Laughs)

Dr. LIGHTMAN: That's right. It seems like in the arts that accumulated life experience helps you get better and better. But in science, accumulated life experience doesn't help unless you're a social scientist. So that agility of mind of the young person is what you really need, and it doesn't help you in knowing more about how people deal with their love affairs or squander their trust or anything like that, as far as science goes.

FLATOW: One of the more interesting--and all your essays are very interesting in "A Sense of the Mysterious"--one that I find that I read with a different meaning than a lot of people, I would imagine, is your essay called "Metaphor in Science," because that's what we do as journalists here on SCIENCE FRIDAY when we have to explain things to the public, is to try to find a metaphor for something you can understand--a complex, you know concept.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes. Well, I think finding good metaphors has become increasingly important in modern science, where the objects of study are also often invisible. Atoms and quarks and...

FLATOW: Strings.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: ...strings and even DNA...


Dr. LIGHTMAN: of DNA, which we call instructions or a code or something which is a kind of a metaphor, that we're grasping to understand things that we can't see, that are beyond our bodily sensations. And so metaphor is all that we have.

FLATOW: Which do you find more pleasurable to do, science or the arts?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Well, that's like asking a parent which of their children do they belove the most. So, you know the answer to that one.

FLATOW: (Laughs) Well, we know the order that you went into. So now you're more into writing than doing science.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Well, that was sort of a strategic decision...


Dr. LIGHTMAN: ...but I love both of them, and I miss being at the front line of physics very much. But it's sort of a practicality.

FLATOW: But you have, I think, a more challenging line of work now.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Oh, of course.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, bringing the public and getting them to understand what science is all about, and writing about it as a metaphor, is a difficult thing to do.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes, it is. And at MIT, we have a graduate program in which we're trying to train young people to be able to do just that, to be able to write about science for the public in a challenging way and accessible way, and not just be cheerleaders of science, but to actually critique science.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Let's go to--is it Ruth in Baton Rouge?

RUTH (Caller): Yes, sir.

FLATOW: Hi there.

RUTH: Hi. I'm enjoying the discussion about art and science. I have a degree in biology, and I've recently started doing jewelry-making. But I wanted to tell you about a wonderful play I enjoyed several years ago. It was written by Steve Martin, called "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"--frisky rabbit, I think it is. It is about a probably apocryphal meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in 1904, before either one of them was particularly well-known. And a lot of the dialogue in the play was about art vs. science. And actually, when the two first meet partway through the play, they're kind of hostile towards one another, but then as they get to know each other and have these discussions about art and science, they can look at one another as brothers. It's a fascinating play. If you ever get a chance, go see it.

FLATOW: Alan, are you familiar with it?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes, I am. Yes, it's a wonderful play. And there's been a lot of good plays in the last 10 years that have used science as subject matter--Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" and Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," just to name two examples.

FLATOW: Right. Thank you for calling, Ruth.

RUTH: Yes, sir. Thank you. I enjoy the program.

FLATOW: Thank you.

1 (800) 989-8255.

Even "Einstein's Dreams" has been attempted to be made into a musical, is that right?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes, it has.

FLATOW: Hey, how's that working out?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Well, there have been a number of different theatrical and musical productions of it. And I always enjoy seeing what another mind is going to come up with. I try to stay out of the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Very smart.

Talking with Alan Lightman this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, author of "A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit." We're talking with him.

And what--do you have a favorite essay of all of them in the book, or is that asking you to pick out one of your favorite children again?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Well, I think possibly the first essay, which is an autobiographical essay, because you only can write an essay like that once.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Tell us--we were talking about Richard Feynman; you knew Richard Feynman, of course.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes, I did. I was a graduate student at Caltech when he was very much at large. And he was interested in the group of graduate students that I was in, and he also was on my thesis committee. And I remember at my thesis examination, he was the first person to ask questions. So you're in a room with just three other professors, and no doors to get out, and this small room--you're standing at a blackboard, they're sitting down. And he asked me two questions. The first one was rather easy, and the second one was just a little bit beyond my reach, and I struggled for about 20 minutes before I finally limped along with an answer. And that was the last question he asked--just asked those two questions. And he was quiet for the next two hours and a half. And much later, I realized, with those two questions, he had precisely bracketed my knowledge. He knew exactly how smart I was and how smart I wasn't. It was like he was firing cannonballs at a ship, and the first one was a little short, and the second one was a little long. And that's what he wanted to do, was just to determine how much I knew.

FLATOW: You called Feynman the Michael Jordan of physics.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes, because he floated when he was doing calculations. You could never tell how he did it. It was magical. It wasn't a level of genius like most people's where you think that if you were just a little bit smarter, you could do what they do. He had a genius that you could not fathom. He sort of defied the laws of gravity, like Michael Jordan does.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones: 1 (800) 989-8255. Michael--no, let's go to Robert in Mountain View, California. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

ROBERT: Pretty good. I think there is a fundamental connection (technical difficulties) art and science (technical difficulties) the greatest example would probably be an artist (technical difficulties)...

FLATOW: Well, you're breaking up on your cell phone.

ROBERT: Oh, just to say that there is certainly a fundamental relationship between art and science, and I think Leonard da Vinci would be one of the best example (technical difficulties)...

FLATOW: Well, let me go from there. Fundamental connection, Alan? Da Vinci's certainly a good--he said da Vinci was certainly a good example.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Certainly. Well, that's where you have it all combined in one person.

FLATOW: Do you think that there is that talent in more people, but it just never gets exploited or brought out in us?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Oh, absolutely. I think from a very young age, and I certainly know that in my case, that I felt pressures from teachers and students and parents to go one direction or the other, or to be either the intuitive kind of person or the rational kind of person, either the spontaneous kind of person or the deliberate kind of person. There are whole personality types that are associated with the artist and the scientist. And I think a lot of young people have talent and interest in both areas, but feel pressured to be one kind of person or the other. And it's a great loss.

FLATOW: And a final question--we're running out of time. Are you worried at all about the direction science in society is going now?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: I am very worried about that. And what's happening in Kansas right now is a perfect example of that. We seem to be regressing there. The...

FLATOW: You mean the problem with evolution in the classroom there?

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Yes. That's right.

FLATOW: Yeah. But it's happening in a lot of other places, too.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: It is. And it is an example of a trend, sort of an anti-intellectualism in the country right now that does have me worried.

FLATOW: Dr. Lightman, thank you for taking time to talk with us. Have a good weekend.

Dr. LIGHTMAN: Nice being with you, Ira.

FLATOW: You, too. Alan Lightman, physicist, adjunct professor of humanities at MIT. His most recent book, "A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit"--very interesting. I highly recommend it. It's got a lot of great little essays in it. You can also look for his short story "The Second Law of Thermodynamics" in the May 5 issue of Physics Today, the first time that Physics Today has actually carried a work of fiction in it. Maybe that's a trend that Alan Lightman will be starting.


FLATOW: You can surf over to our Web site at if you missed any of the stuff we talk about. The links are up there. Charles has got 'em up. Also, SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection--teaching material, curricula for you to download. And also we're podcasting SCIENCE FRIDAY. You can download it on your iPod or you can listen on RealAudio or on

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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