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  • Translator: Amanda Chu Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs

  • Hello, everybody.

  • Thank you for being here.

  • In childhood, I wrote dozens of poems,

  • and in my poetry,

  • I tried to express my feelings about loneliness,

  • my questions about death,

  • my unrequited love for 14-year-old girls.

  • (Laughter)

  • Reading, listening, even thinking,

  • I was mesmerized by the sounds and the movements of words.

  • Words could be sudden, like "jolt,"

  • or words could be slow, like "meandering,"

  • words could be silvery, prickly to the touch,

  • and by magic, words could create scenes and emotions.

  • Between poems, I did scientific experiments,

  • and these I conducted in a little laboratory,

  • a homemade laboratory that I built off my second-floor bedroom,

  • really, a large closet.

  • And there I hoarded resistors, capacitors,

  • wire of various lengths,

  • test tubes, beautiful pieces of glassware.

  • I loved my equipment; I loved to build things.

  • By the age of 12,

  • I had built a remote-control device

  • that turned on the lights in any room of the house from any other room.

  • When my scientific projects went awry,

  • I could find certain fulfillment in mathematics.

  • In geometry,

  • I loved the inexorable relationships between lines and angles.

  • And in algebra, I loved the abstraction -

  • I loved letting X's and Y's

  • stand for the number of nickels and pennies in a jar

  • and then solving a connected set of equations

  • one logical step after the other.

  • I loved that shining purity of mathematics,

  • that precision.

  • I loved the certainty of mathematics.

  • In mathematics,

  • you were guaranteed an answer

  • as clean and as crisp as a new 20-dollar bill,

  • and when you found that answer,

  • you knew that you were right, unquestionably right -

  • the area of a circle is pi r-squared, period.

  • Mathematics contrasted strongly

  • with the ambiguities and the contradictions of people.

  • The world of people confused me;

  • the world of people had no logic or certainty:

  • My Aunt Jean continued to drive recklessly in her little MG sports car

  • even though everyone in the family

  • told her that she would kill herself in that car one day.

  • We had a wonderful woman named Blanche, who worked for our family for years.

  • Blanche had to leave her husband after he abused her,

  • and then, for many years later, spoke about him with affection.

  • So how does one reconcile these different worlds,

  • these seeming contradictions?

  • Well, now having lived in two communities,

  • the community of scientists and the community of artists,

  • for many years -

  • I've worked both as a physicist and as a novelist -

  • I have tentative answers to some of these questions.

  • So I wanted to tell you this morning a little bit about what I've learned

  • about the different ways that scientists and artists approach the world -

  • their different versions of truth and also some of the many similarities.

  • A big distinction that I have found between physicists and novelists

  • or, I should say, more generally, between scientists and artists

  • is in what I will call "the naming of things."

  • Roughly speaking,

  • the scientist tries to name things

  • and the artist tries to avoid naming things.

  • To name a thing,

  • you've gathered it, you've distilled it,

  • you've purified it,

  • you've put a box around the thing

  • and said what's in the box is the thing

  • and what's not in the box is not the thing.

  • Consider, for example, the word "electron,"

  • which is a type of subatomic particle.

  • As far as we know,

  • all of the zillions of electrons in the universe are identical;

  • there's only a single kind of electron.

  • And to a modern physicist,

  • the word electron means a particular equation -

  • it's called the Dirac equation.

  • And that equation summarizes everything that we know about electrons:

  • the precise energy of electrons in atoms as they orbit the nucleus,

  • the deflections of electrons in magnetic fields -

  • all of that can be predicted to many decimal places

  • with great accuracy by the Dirac equation.

  • Every object in the physical universe

  • the scientist wants to be able to name with this kind of precision.

  • For scientists, it's a feeling of comfort,

  • a feeling of power,

  • and a sense of control

  • to be able to name things in this way.

  • The concepts that the artist deals with cannot be named.

  • The novelist might use a word like "love" or like "fear,"

  • but those words don't really convey that much to the reader.

  • For one thing, there are a thousand different kinds of love:

  • there's the love that you feel for a mother

  • who writes you every day your first summer away from home

  • at summer camp;

  • there is the love that you feel for a man or a woman that you've just made love to;

  • there's the love that you feel for a friend

  • who calls you right after you've split up from your spouse;

  • and on and on.

  • But it's not just the many different kinds of love

  • that prevent the novelist from truly naming the thing,

  • it's that the particular situation

  • that creates the particular ache of love.

  • That particular situation must be shown to the reader -

  • not named but shown through the actions of characters.

  • And if love is shown rather than named,

  • then each reader will experience it in her own individual way,

  • each reader will draw on her own adventures and misadventures with love.

  • Every electron is identical, but every love is different.

  • The novelist doesn't want to try to eliminate these differences,

  • doesn't want to try to distill the meaning of love

  • so that there is only a single meaning, as in the Dirac equation,

  • because such a distillation is impossible

  • and even an attempt at such a distillation

  • would destroy that magical, delicate, participatory creative act

  • that happens when a good reader reads a good book.

  • In a sense a novel is not completed until it is read by a reader

  • and every reader completes the novel in a different way.

  • Well, there's another phenomena that's closely related to naming,

  • and that is framing problems in terms of questions with answers.

  • We scientists work by breaking the world down into smaller and smaller pieces

  • until we have what we call well-posed problems

  • that have clear and definite answers.

  • It might take five years, it might take a hundred years to find the answer,

  • but at any given moment of time,

  • each scientist is working on something

  • that he or she feels has a definite answer;

  • for example, one such question might be:

  • Where in a living organism are the instructions stored

  • to create a new organism?

  • This is a well-posed problem with a definite answer;

  • it was answered in the 1800s and 1900s.

  • But artists often don't care what the answer is

  • because often answers - definite answers - don't exist in the arts;

  • the arts are complicated

  • by the intrinsic ambiguities and self-contradictions of people.

  • This is one of the reasons

  • why the characters in a good novel can be debated endlessly,

  • why God held the apple in front of Eve and then forbade her to eat it.

  • In the arts,

  • there are many, many interesting questions that don't have answers,

  • such as "Does God exist?" or "What is the nature of love?"

  • or "Would we be happier if we live to be a thousand years old?" -

  • and I'm grouping the arts and the humanities together here.

  • These are very interesting questions;

  • they provoke us, they stimulate our imagination,

  • but they don't have clear and definite answers

  • or maybe no answers at all.

  • As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,

  • "We should learn to love the questions themselves

  • like locked rooms and like books written in a very foreign tongue."

  • And I have finally come to believe that we need both kinds of questions:

  • we need questions with answers and we need questions without answers -

  • that both kinds of questions are part of being human.

  • Well, I've been speaking about some of the differences

  • between the sciences and the arts -

  • let me say a little bit about some of the similarities.

  • The folklore

  • is that artists make up everything and scientists don't make up anything.

  • Well, both views are false.

  • The imagination has always been important in a great scientist.

  • And Albert Einstein had a phrase that he used -

  • he called it "the free invention of the mind" in the sciences,

  • and by that, the great scientist meant

  • that we cannot discover all of the truths of nature

  • simply by observation and experiment,

  • that sometimes we have to start with mental constructions

  • and then only later test those against experiment.

  • And one of the greatest examples of Einstein's "free invention of the mind"

  • was his work on time, called "the theory of special relativity."

  • And in that work, Einstein begins with the stunning postulate

  • that a light ray passes us at the same speed

  • whether we're running towards the light ray

  • or away from it -

  • it makes no sense based on our day-to-day experience,

  • it violates common sense,

  • and yet Einstein realized that our common sense could be in error

  • when it comes to the very high speeds of a light ray,

  • and he made this leap of the imagination.

  • But scientists can't make up everything even when they're developing new theories;

  • I mean, you can't put forth a new law of gravity

  • that says apples fall up instead of down -

  • there's still a large body of known experimental evidence

  • that we have to accord with.

  • And I would argue that in the same way,

  • there's a body of experimental evidence that the artist must accord with -

  • it is the large catalog of known behavior in psychology of human beings

  • called human nature,

  • and those are the facts that the artist must accord with.

  • And let me give you an example of what I'm talking about there.

  • Suppose a novelist has created a character:

  • a man about 40 years old, married with two children,

  • who's just attended a Christmas party.

  • Just for the sake of referring to him, let's call this fellow Gabriel.

  • Well, we learn at the beginning of the story

  • that Gabriel is not too sure of himself -

  • he worried when he first got into the Christmas party,

  • he worried that he had insulted the housekeeper's daughter,

  • and a little bit later,

  • he's worrying that his after-dinner speech is going to be condescending.

  • Well, anyway, the party ends.

  • Gabriel and his wife Greta have left their two children with a babysitter;

  • they've decided to spend the night at a nearby hotel.

  • Greta's been very quiet during the evening.

  • So they walk out of the house,

  • and they begin walking on a path

  • towards their hotel in this little village.

  • It's well after midnight now; it's beginning to snow.

  • Gabriel looks over at his wife and admires her

  • and hopes that she still feels in love with him

  • even though she's had the drudgery of house work and children.

  • So they reach their hotel,

  • and they walk up this narrow curving stairway

  • that's lit only by candlelight,

  • and they enter their room,

  • and by this time, Gabriel is feeling a lot of desire for his wife, Greta.

  • And instead, she turns away from him and she begins weeping.

  • And he asks her, "Why are you crying?"

  • And she says that there was a sad song sung at the Christmas party

  • that reminded her of a boy

  • that she used to know long ago in her youth,

  • a boy with large brown eyes.

  • They used to go walking together.

  • Gabriel feels a dread in his stomach,

  • and he asks his wife, "Were you in love with this boy?"

  • And she says, "Yes, we were great together at the time."

  • And then Greta says, "He died at age 17."

  • "What did he die of so young?" asks Gabriel.

  • "I think he died for me," says Greta,

  • and she begins sobbing all over again and throws herself to the bed.

  • Well, this scene that I've just described, as some of you know,

  • is the last scene of James Joyce's famous story The Dead,

  • and the question is: How will Joyce end the scene?

  • What will be Gabriel's reaction to his wife's confession?

  • Suppose that he shows no reaction -

  • would we as readers with our life experience believe that reaction?