When I was a junior undergrad, a fellow student–a physics major–recommended Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as one of his favorite books. Having had a small taste of physics in a mechanics course that fall, I was hungry for more–especially since we stopped just short of an introduction to relativity. I picked up a copy to read over winter break, and that novel became one of my favorites, as well. Five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Lightman’s work.
Dance for Two is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. “It seems to me,” Lightman observes, “that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something–this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws.” And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:
“Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.”
The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, “Pas de Deux,” describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.
Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.
There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, “Progress,” Lightman expresses his concern about society’s headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that “we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.” In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science–science for science’s sake–arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth (“there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants”), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. “If we stop paying for pure science today,” he argues, “there will be no applied science tomorrow.”
In all, Dance for Two is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I’ve read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.
- Scienticity: 4/5. It’s not all science, but I think there’s more tucked in here than you might notice at first glance.
- Readability: 5/5. This seems like one of the easiest reads I’ve picked up recently, in the best way–it’s simply clear prose, never oversimplified or patronizing.
- Hermeneutics: 4/5. Lightman clearly knows his stuff. In one or two of the vignettes, though, I struggled to find his meaning or intent (fun as they were).
- Charisma: 5/5. If I could give 10/5, I would; his prose is spellbinding.
- Recommendation: 5/5. Unreserved.