A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit

where some hear a noise, others hear a tune (M. Polanyi)

(…) I felt a sense of mystery. I had shed light on a small corner of nature. Other scientists had illuminated larger corners. But there were almost certainly vast chambers and ballrooms that remained in the dark. many beautiful and strange things as yet unknown. In an article published in Forum and Century magazine in 1951, Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” What did Einstein mean by “the mysterious”; I don’ think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I believe that he meant a sense o awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened. Just as Einstein suggested, I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery. (Alan Lightman, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, Pantheon Books, New York, 2005, pp. 41—42)


I miss the purity. Theoretical physicists, and many other kinds of scientists, work in a world of the mind. It is a mathematical world without bodies, without people, without the vagaries of human emotion. (…) The equations have a precision and elegance, a magnificent serenity, an indisputable rightness (…) When in the throes of a new problem, i was driven night and day, compelled because I knew there was a definite answer. That certainty and power and the intensity of the effort it causes I dearly miss. (…) Sometimes, I wonder if what i really miss is my youth. Purity, exhilaration, intensity-these are aspects of the young. It is not possible at age fifty for me to look back on myself in my twenties and early thirties and understand anything more than the delicious feeling of immortality, the clarity of youth, the feeling that everything was possible (Alan Lightman, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, pp. 178-181).

A word that is commonly used among scientists is wonder, though you won’t often see that word used in their scientific papers. Doing research is laborious, and often the reward for all that is the sense of wonder that people get from time to time. Scientists’ experience of wonder is, in a sense, an act of worship. (John Polkinghorne, Interview with Daniel Burke, April 15, 2009).

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. (Ps. 19:1-2)

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