Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

According to physicist and novelist Alan Lightman:

Creative imagination and inventiveness have always been hallmarks of good science, just as of good writing. Writers must conform to certain recognized truths about human nature, just as scientists must conform to truths about non-human nature.

Both the novelist and the scientist are seeking truth. For the novelist, this truth is related to the world of the mind and the heart, for the scientist the truth in the world of the subject he is investigating or studying.

For instance gravity is equivalent to acceleration, hangs together like a work of art. You’ve all seen paintings or musical compositions where you felt you couldn’t remove one brush stroke or change one note without severely altering the work.

scientists and artists share the mixed blessing and burden of the creative life and the thrill of what we call the creative moment — the “aha” moment when a scientist finally realizes the missing piece in some troubling problem. Scientists and artists do what they do because they love it and because they cannot imagine doing anything else.

The important difference between the two pursuits is that science requires a high level of certainty, while writing or painting requires a degree of abstraction.

Scientists try to name things, but artists try to avoid naming things. Much of the game of science is to pose a problem with enough precision and clarity so that it is guaranteed a solution.

Artists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers often don’t exist. For many artists, the question is more important than the answer.

Another thing that distinguishes the processes of art and science: Every electron is identical, but every love is different.

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While scientists seek to name things, artists tend to “avoid naming things,” Mr. Lightman suggested. Artists’ stock-in trade are concepts like “love” and “fear” that may not convey much to the reader. “There are a thousand kinds of love,” Mr. Lightman observed, and it is the author’s job to show “that particular ache,” rather than name it. “Each reader will draw on their experiences to understand the author’s meaning,” he said, adding that “a novel is not completed until it is read by a reader, and every reader completes a novel in a different way.”

Set against the sensual, hard-to-define experiences of art, Mr. Lightman described his love for the “shining purity” and “certainty” of mathematics, where there is a “guaranteed answer.” The area of circle, he reminded the audience, is πr2 andthere are “no contradictions.” The topic sentence that is essential in expository writing, he noted, is “fatal” in fiction.

What science and art do have in common, Mr. Lightman said, is the fact that “both seek beauty,” which is “hard to define in any field,” but “we know it when we see it.” Both art and science celebrate simplicity while trying to make sense of life’s complexities, he added. As an example of beautifully rendered fiction, Mr. Lightman described the scene in James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” when Gabriel Conroy recognizes the transcendent power of his wife Gretta’s love for a young man in her past.

Mr. Lightman reported that “the creative moment,” when he is totally immersed in his writing, occurs whether he is writing about science or writing fiction. He then becomes “pure spirit … oblivious to everything.”

In his talk, Mr. Lightman, who was introduced by Library Director Leslie Burger, referenced poets Rainer Maria Rilke and his advice to “try to love the questions themselves,” and Walt Whitman’s realization of the “sweet hell” he anticipated when he knew he was destined to be a poet.

Einstein’s Dreams is a fictional collage of thirty stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as he worked in a patent office in Switzerland but was thinking through his theory of relativity. The New York Times review of the book described it as a “magical, metaphysical realm …. Captivating, enchanting, delightful.”

Mr. Lightman’s other novels include Good Benito; The Diagnosis; Reunion; Ghost; and his most recent book, Mr g, a creation story. His books on scientific topics include Origins; Ancient Light; Great Ideas in Physics; and The Discoveries. He has also published a book of poetry with the perhaps unsurprising title, Song of Two Worlds. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Nature, The New York Review of Books, and other publications.



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