This a brief follow-up on my most recent post about some of Alan Lightman’s writing. In that one, I was writing about an essay collected in one of his books. In another essay in that book, “A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court,” a time traveler to the past tries to convince people he is not crazy and really is from the future. He tells them about the science of the future. Unfortunately, he is not a scientist and his grasp of things like television and quantum physics is – like most of us – quite superficial. He is put on trial and judged by science minds of the time. Thomas Edison is one who is not convinced about his time traveling or the science he tries to relate to the court.
In another piece, Isaac Newton comes to Lightman’s MIT university office. Alan has trouble convincing Isaac about where science is today too. Explaining science to non-scientists (or scientists of the past) is not easy, but it is important.
I have read a small shelf of books by Lightman starting with Einstein’s Dreams which I read when it was the assigned freshman common book for my son at Virginia Tech. The book imagines many dreams Einstein might have had as he worked through his theories. I skimmed it again today when I took out my grandfather’s pipe again since I knew Einstein was a pipe smoker. I found this little passage:
“Einstein and Besso sit in a small fishing boat at anchor in the river. Besso is eating a cheese sandwich while Einstein puffs on his pipe and slowly reels in a lure.
“Do you usually catch anything here, smack in the middle of the Aare?” asks
Besso, who has never been fishing with Einstein before.
“Never,” answers Einstein, who continues to cast.
Ah, yes. Sitting and fishing and smoking a pipe and not expecting (perhaps not wanting) to catch a fish seems like a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Trout season opened in New Jersey last weekend. I surveyed people fishing at a local lake and there were serious anglers, parents, and kids trying for the first time and some people who seemed happy to cast out a line and let it be as they sat in the sunlight on a cold morning doing some Einsteinian dreaming.
The other Lightman book I have recommended is Mr g: A Novel about the Creation which begins, “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” This story of Creation is narrated by God who is bored with living in the shimmering Void with his bickering Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope, and so creates time, space, matter, stars, planets, consciousness, and finally intelligent beings with moral dilemmas. As Mr. g watches our universe – his favorite even with its problems – grow into maturity, he begins to understand how the act of creation can change the Creator himself. (my original post on this book)
One last recommendation requires no reading; only thinking. It is Lightman’s new series on PBS, Searching – Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science. He approaches the Big Questions in small ways that don’t boggle the mind of nonscientists. Very necessary work.
One mathematical point made in the series that stuck with me and made me wonder concerns the powers of 10 – a mathematical thing that was best explained to me in a short documentary film. Compared, in a numerical sense, we are almost exactly midway between the masses of atoms and the stars. I don’t know how that changes things but it seems so “right.” We are intermediate in size between the Sun, at a billion meters in diameter, and a molecule of connected atoms at a billionth of a meter.