three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
user_rating: 
0

Science and the Human Spirit

A-SenseMysteriousIn these autobiographical and biographical essays, Lightman, a renowned physicist and author, reflects on the drive, passion, and perfectionism that science inspires. "A Sense of the Mysterious," which describes competition among scientists, distinguishes between the fixed world of science and more fluid world of literature. "Inventions of the Mind" relates the relevance of theoretical scientific discoveries to our daily lives. Profiles of Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, Vera Rubin (who discovered dark matter), and Albert Einstein reveal the "profound sense of otherness" that was perhaps necessary to their craft. All essays reflect on different ways of knowing, and understanding, our world.
Pantheon. 211 pages. $23. ISBN: 0375423206

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Lightman’s descriptions of scientific discovery are almost otherworldly. … This slender volume mixes insightful scientific biographies with revealing autobiographical accounts and leavens them both with clearly told physics lessons for lay readers." Edward J. Larson

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With the clarity of thought demanded by science, Lightman writes in these essays of the pleasures of physics and fiction, of their similarities and differences. … A Sense of the Mysterious is a fine introduction to the excitement and pleasures of science by a scientist who is a humanist in the noblest sense of the word." Anthony Day

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What saves these essays [about Einstein, Feynman, and Teller] from redundancy is Lightman’s insider perspective as he contemplates the measure of these great scientists’ humanity alongside their accomplishments. … What seems to propel Lightman, and what seems to hold these essays together, is his diametrically opposed yearnings to dwell in the mysterious, all the while striving to define it." Julie Mayeda

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"He’s too unassuming to realize he’s unusual, and so he never really accounts for his impressive talents. … The best [essay] is perhaps ‘Metaphor in Science,’ a discussion of the invisibility of modern physics that is at the same time a description of quantum theory for those who found things easier when atoms still resembled plum puddings." Sophie Harrison

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"It’s hard to know what the audience is for this well-intentioned, high-minded book. If you’re a scientist, you already know this material and much more. If you’re not, you might not care to know about this stuff at all." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

Lightman is an unusual breed—an astrophysicist and bestselling novelist. In these 11 essays, he casts a romantic light on scientific discovery and conveys a charming sense of how he ended up with feet in the seeminlyg incongruous two camps. Critics especially lauded the short pieces attempting to reconcile Lightman’s two worlds. But at times, Lightman forgets that "most people don’t automatically reach for a pencil and start calculating angles when they notice the wake from a boat" (New York Times Book Review). And, the middle essays—the biographical profiles of scientists—are less insightful than the autobiographical ones. Finally, if Lightman fails to elucidate the boundary (or lack thereof) between science and art, it may not matter. There’s beauty in the telling of his journey.

Also by the Author

Einstein’s Dreams (1993): In this bestselling novel, Einstein, a young patent clerk living in Berne, Switzerland, in 1905, shares his dreams about the nature of time and theory of relativity.

The Diagnosis A Novel (2000): F National Book Award finalist. When junior executive Bill Chalmers suffers memory loss, he awakes into a nightmare where not only his job and family, but also his soul, are at stake as the world continues to speed by.