Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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?