‘A Sense of the Mysterious’: A Lab of One’s Own

Sophie Harrison reviews Alan Lightman’s new collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, in the New York Times:

LightmanLike Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and countless others, Lightman is that phenomenon mistakenly believed to be rare: a scientist in love with words, one who can write clearly and appealingly about his subject for a lay readership. Science happens to be excellent training for literature; it calls for both narrative ability and a grasp of style, and it sometimes seems as though the ”arts-science divide” simply reflects the humanities’ refusal to believe that anything that originates in a lab could possibly be attractive. But if the gap between the practices has been exaggerated, there does tend to be a divide between the practitioners. In Lightman’s case the divide is more like a canyon: he is both a former astrophysicist and a novelist. About his extraordinary twin career he is modest. ”I was fortunate to make a life in both,” he says, as though he had divided his time between landscape gardening and professional Rollerblading, rather than spending two decades as a research scientist and publishing four well-regarded novels.

In this book’s first and most substantial piece, an autobiographical essay originally published in Daedalus in 2003, Lightman tries to give a sense of how he ended up with a foot in each camp. His discussion tends to description rather than explanation: possibly it hasn’t occurred to him that most people don’t automatically reach for a pencil and start calculating angles when they notice the wake from a boat. He’s too unassuming to realize he’s unusual, and so he never really accounts for his impressive talents. But if he fails to interrogate the why, he is charming on the how.

More here.