Monday, January 02, 2006

International Men of Mystery (& Science)

Since I mentioned last time that Alan Lightman would be featured this morning on NPR's This I Believe, I'd be remiss if I didn't feature some of his thoughts, which tied in perfectly with my post:
Einstein once wrote that "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't think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I think that he meant a sense of 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 boundary between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.
Lightman also confessed that he hopes some mysteries of the universe remain hidden:
One of the Holy Grails in physics is to find the so-called "theory of everything," the final theory that will encompass all the fundamental laws of nature. I, for one, hope that we never find that final theory. I hope that there are always things that we don't know -- about the physical world as well as about ourselves. I believe in the creative power of the unknown. I believe in the exhilaration of standing at the boundary between the known and the unknown. I believe in the unanswered questions of children.
Since Lightman mentioned Einstein and NPR closed the segment by mentioning that Einstein had contributed to This I Believe back in 1954, I had to look that up, too. It appears the entry was actually translated from an existing essay by the good prof, and he expressed similar themes to Lightman, as well as Darwin and Sagan below:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious -- the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of -- and glimpse into -- the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive.
Einstein gradually shifts gears to express his concerns about the individual's place in and dependence upon society and prescribes "the establishment of a planned economy coupled with an education geared towards social goals." Considering the implications of that term "planned economy," I wonder how Einstein's thoughts played with the American public back in 1954. Nonetheless, so much of his fifty-plus-year old advice still sounds relevant today.

(Crossposted over at Saheli's place.)

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