An exquisite account of those moments that feel “like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone.” BY MARIA POPOVA.
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote, “the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Hardly any contemporary writer has done more to illuminate that cradle than Alan Lightman.
A physicist and a novelist, and MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, he is one of those rare intellectual amphibians who inhabit the worlds of art and science with equal grace. In his incomparable writing, Lightman continually uncovers what he calls the “creative sympathies” between these two worlds — sympathies nowhere more similar than in the singular scintillation of creative breakthrough common to both realms, which he articulates beautifully in the opening essay from his altogether magnificent 2005 collection A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (public library).
Reflecting on his first love affair with original research as a 22-year-old graduate student at Caltech, Lightman recounts a trying project aimed at procuring “a giant umbrella theory of gravity” by writing down countless equations. However much he toiled, the calculations just didn’t add up. For months, his pencil trembled with the sense that something was off, but the source of the error evaded him. And then, much like the periodic table arranged itself in Mendeleev’s unconscious mind during a dream, the breakthrough arrived in accordance with Lewis Carroll’s remedy for creative block. Lightman describes that miraculous moment:
One morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of my self. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame. Furthermore, I had no sense of my body. I didn’t know who I was or where I was. I was simply spirit, in a state of pure exhilaration. One of William Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy Psychologists have termed this state “flow.”
But although the resulting breakthrough is the fruit of the lengthy labor preceding it — one ripened by what T.S. Eliot called the “incubation” at the root of creativity — when it arrives, it feels like an unmerited grace. Lightman captures this intoxicating feeling: The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the drag goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing. That Sunday morning, he woke up planing: