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A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman

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A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman

The cover of the paperback version of A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman

Random House Inc.

The Bottom Line

Lightman's series of essays presented in A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit cover a range of topics, but each and every one focuses on the way science is performed or its impact on society. These essays move both the mind and the heart, as they speak about the underlying motivations and meaning of science in all of our lives. Some are biographical, while others are more philosophical, but all of them will enrich the reader's understanding of how science is practiced ... and why some people choose to practice it.
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Pros

  • An exploratory look at the nature of science and scientists
  • Written by someone who knows physics from the inside
  • Easily accessible to non-scientists

Cons

  • A collection of essays may not be everyone's cup of tea.
  • Some subject matter overlaps between essays.

Description

  • Available in both paperback and hardcover
  • 224 pages, published in 2005 by Random House/Vintage
  • A collection of 11 essays (written from 1984 to 2003) by physicist and author/novelist Alan Lightman
  • General Science Essays
    • "A Sense of the Mysterious"
    • "Words"
    • "Inventions of the Mind"
    • "Prisoner of the Wired World"
  • Biographical Essays
    • "The Contradictory Genius"
    • "The One and Only"
    • "Megaton Man"
    • "Dark Matter"
  • Autobiographical Essays
    • "A Scientist Dying Young"
    • "Portrait of the Writer as a Young Scientist"

Guide Review - A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman is well known for having turned from physics researcher to straddle the dual worlds of physics and literature. He has written novels, stories, and essays, but his writing tends to focus strongly on the themes of science.

A Sense of the Mysterious is a collection of essays in which Lightman presents several of the issues that motivate scientists and the way they perform their craft. He speaks of the awe scientists feel at their work, often bringing up examples of his own work and life, or that of other scientists.

Of these essays, the one which resonated with me most strongly was "Metaphor in Science," in which Lightman makes the argument that science is dependent upon metaphor in a way which is distinct from those in the arts. As he says, "Metaphors in modern science must do more than color their principal objects; they must build their reality from scratch." He goes on to warn of the danger of this, as some scientists have lost themselves by clinging too strongly to a metaphor which no longer continues to perform its function.

He offers intriguing biographical essays on controversial figures in the field, from Albert Einstein to Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and Vera Rubin. Two essays are autobiographical, addressing the transition from young scientist to seasoned author that has hallmarked Lightman's career.

This book is best, I feel, for two classes of people. The first is someone who is passionate about science, because Lightman's beautiful prose will remind you why you're so passionate about it in the first place. The second person is one who cares not a bit about science and who gets headaches upon seeing a math equation - for them, Lightman's essays may finally get them to understand what some of us see in the glorious realm of science.

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