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Book Review: Science and art: mysterious connection

C. Thomas Finnigan | Excalibur | Lifestyles | February 20th, 2006

TORONTO (CUP) -- The relationship between science and art has been widely discussed since the time of Aristotle. The concentration and mastery required by both disciplines has afforded respect to those who practice either. Or both.

Alan Lightman is a scientist with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and has been on the faculties at Harvard and the Michigan Institute of Technology; he is also a writer, who has published two books and whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly.

Mr. Lightman claims to bridge the gap between science and art in A Sense of the Mysterious, a new book of previously published essays, the first of which deals with Mr. Lightman's childhood. Unsurprisingly, he was a socially inept teenager, but a dutiful student. He showed interest in his eventual professions early on—conducting complicated experiments with a friend, and writing poems and short stories. In college, he decided against a career in writing, instead choosing a more realistic one in the sciences. While discussing his own life, Lightman brings to the table only a few episodic anecdotes, which fail to draw laughter or unearth knowledge.

Thankfully, many of the later essays deal with other scientists, including Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, the infamous physicist. In "Megaton Man," Lightman discusses Teller's increasing isolation from the scientific community, when he pushed for weapons funding and participated in communist hearings during the Cold War. Lightman paints as balanced a picture of Teller as he can. he lets the damning facts speak for themselves (the most damning coming from Teller himself), but Lightman posits that a fear of communists left over from a frightening childhood in Hungary may be responsible for the scientist's zealousness.

In the aptly titled "Contradictory Genius," Lightman discusses Einstein's, well, contradictions: "[Einstein] opposed nationalism . . . but supported the birth of Israel . . ." Einstein opposed war and owned patents to U-boat mechanisms, was a great humanist who supported the death penalty (says Einstein: "I appreciate more the quality than the quantity of human life"). He also "scoffed at material concerns, yet he consistently demanded exorbitant salaries and lecture fees . . ." according to Lightman.

These mini-biographies are interesting, if only due to the inherent fascination we all have with genius. Mr. Lightman chooses his subjects well but none so well as Richard Fenyman. Dubbed "Michael Jordan of physics," Fenyman could derive results from papers he had read only halfway through, and solve, on a whim, calculations which would take months for a colleague to duplicate. He eventually became bored enough with physics that he taught himself enough biology to make a new discovery in that field. It's all very fascinating, but Lightman's outlook is too broad for his medium, the magazine article. A specific instant in Fenyman's life would have sufficed, but instead the subject is spread too far, too thin, too quickly.

Throughout these essays, Mr. Lightman references book-length studies of the scientists, which no doubt paint a larger, and possibly truer, picture of their subjects. It seems as though he is doing little more than I-am-synopsizing a book for a published review. If there's one good thing he has done, at the very least, he has passed on interest and knowledge.

Can a greater thing be said of a writer? And yet his prose is particularly unimaginative for a writer who rushes to name himself an artist; his work is a most mundane example of the literary non-fiction genre. Can a worse thing be said of a writer?

In his essay, "A Scientist Dying Young", G.H. Hardy says, "the function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done." I suppose we could ask the same of artists.
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