B1 Intermediate US 24 Folder Collection
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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?
No, it would ring false.
Or suppose Gabriel feels superior to this boy of the distant past,
this long dead boy, and dismisses his wife's pain -
would we believe that reaction?
No, we wouldn't believe that either,
because we know that Gabriel is too insecure a character for that.
The ending that Joyce actually writes is this:
Gabriel realizes that his wife has always loved this long dead boy
more than she's ever loved him, her husband,
and he also realizes that he's never loved any woman
with the passion that she has just demonstrated for this boy.
And all he can do after these realizations
is sag against the windowpane,
listening to the breathing of his wife as she sleeps,
watching her as if he and she had never been man and wife.
We believe this ending; we know that it's true even in fiction
because it accords with our life experiences,
with our understanding of human nature, and it causes us anguish.
Both the scientist and the artist are seeking truth.
In seeking truth,
both the scientist and the artist must invent.
Both kinds of invention are important.
Both kinds of invention must be tested against experiment.
The tests of the scientist's invention are more definitive;
no matter how beautiful a scientific theory is,
it has a terrible vulnerability - it can be proven false.
A writer's characters or story cannot be proven definitively wrong,
but they can ring false and thus lose their power with the reader,
and in this way, the novelist is constantly testing his fiction
against the accumulated life experiences of his readers.
The scientists and the artists that I have known
have at least one more thing in common:
they do what they do because they love it
and because they cannot imagine doing anything else -
this is a compulsion.
This compulsion is both a blessing and a burden.
It's a blessing
because the creative life is a beautiful life
and it's not given to all of us,
and it's a burden because when the call comes,
it can be unrelenting and it can drown out the rest of life.
This mixed blessing and burden
must be the sweet hell that Walt Whitman referred to
when he realized at a young age that he was destined to be a poet -
"Never more shall I escape," wrote Whitman.
This mixed blessing and burden
must be why a visitor to the young Einstein's apartment in Bern
found the physicists rocking the cradle of his son with one hand
and doing mathematical calculations with the other.
Thank you.
(Applause)
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The physicist as novelist: Alan Lightman at TEDxWellesleyCollege

24 Folder Collection
黃逸庭 published on January 4, 2020
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