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:
Like 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.