The Power of Mysteries Childhood curiosity fueled Alan Lightman's interest in science and space. Now an astrophysicist and novelist, Lightman believes our greatest creativity, in science and art, comes from awe at the unknown.
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The Power of Mysteries

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The Power of Mysteries

The Power of Mysteries

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Unidentified Woman: I believe in the ingredients of love.

Unidentified Man: I believe in freedom of speech.


On Mondays, we bring you our series This I Believe. Today we hear from astrophysicist Alan Lightman, who sees possibility in the skies. Alan Lightman has researched gravitational theory and the behavior of stars. He now writes novels and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON reporting:

As an astrophysicist, Alan Lightman deals in both facts and theories. This is what many of those who write for our series do, too. They right of beliefs that are proven by fact and those that are proven by faith. Lightman's beliefs rest on the ground between the two. Here is Alan Lightman with his essay for This I Believe.

Mr. ALAN LIGHTMAN: I believe in the power of the unknown. I believe that a sense of the unknown propels us in all of our creative activities, from science to art.

When I was a child, after bedtime, I would often get out of my bed in my pajamas, go to the window and stare at the stars. I had so many questions. How far away were those tiny points of light? Did space go on forever and ever or was there some end to space, some giant edge? And if so, what lay beyond the edge?

Another of my childhood questions, `Did time go on forever?' I looked at pictures of my parents and grandparents and tried to imagine their parents and so on back through the generations, back and back through time. Looking out of my bedroom window into the vastness of space, time seemed to stretch forward and backwards without end, engulfing me, engulfing my parents and great-grandparents, engulfing the entire history of Earth. Does time go on forever or is there some beginning of time? And if so, what came before?

When I grew up, I became a professional astrophysicist. Although I never answered any of these questions, they continued to challenge me, to haunt me, to drive me in my scientific research, to cause me to live on tuna fish and no sleep for days at a time while I was obsessed with a science problem. These same questions and questions like them challenge and haunt the leading scientists of the day. Einstein once wrote that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

What did Einstein mean by the mysterious? I don't think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I think that he meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we don't have all the answers at this moment, a sense that we can stand right at the boundary between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.

Scientists are happy, of course, when they find answers to questions, but scientists are also happy when they become stuck, when they discover interesting questions that they can't answer, because that's when their imagination and creativity are set on fire. That's when the greatest progress occurs.

One of the holy Grails in physics is to find the so-called theory of everything, the final theory that will encompass all the fundamental laws of nature. I, for one, hope that we never find that final theory. I hope that there are always things that we don't know about the physical world as well as about ourselves. I believe in the creative power of the unknown. I believe in the exhilaration of standing at the boundary between the known and unknown. I believe in the unanswered questions of children.

ALLISON: Alan Lightman with his essay for This I Believe. We're inviting everyone to contribute 500-word statements of personal belief. Visit our Web site,, for details and to see all the essays we've aired along with those from the 1950s series, including one from Albert Einstein.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

MONTAGNE: Next Monday on "All Things Considered," an essay from Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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