Physicist and Writer Alan Lightman on the Shared Psychology of Creative Breakthrough in Art and Science
An exquisite account of those moments that feel “like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone.”
By Maria Popova
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote, “the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Hardly any contemporary writer has done more to illuminate that cradle than Alan Lightman. A physicist and a novelist, and MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, he is one of those rare intellectual amphibians who inhabit the worlds of art and science with equal grace. In his incomparable writing, Lightman continually uncovers what he calls the “creative sympathies” between these two worlds — sympathies nowhere more similar than in the singular scintillation of creative breakthrough common to both realms, which he articulates beautifully in the opening essay from his altogether magnificent 2005 collection A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (public library).
Reflecting on his first love affair with original research as a 22-year-old graduate student at Caltech, Lightman recounts a trying project aimed at procuring “a giant umbrella theory of gravity” by writing down countless equations. However much he toiled, the calculations just didn’t add up. For months, his pencil trembled with the sense that something was off, but the source of the error evaded him.
And then, much like the periodic table arranged itself in Mendeleev’s unconscious mind during a dream, the breakthrough arrived in accordance with Lewis Carroll’s remedy for creative block. Lightman describes that miraculous moment:
One morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of my self. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame. Furthermore, I had no sense of my body. I didn’t know who I was or where I was. I was simply spirit, in a state of pure exhilaration.
Psychologists have termed this state “flow.” But although the resulting breakthrough is the fruit of the lengthy labor preceding it — one ripened by what T.S. Eliot called the “incubation” at the root of creativity — when it arrives, it feels like an unmerited grace. Lightman captures this intoxicating feeling:
The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the drag goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.
That Sunday morning, he woke up planing:
Although I had no sense of my ego, I did have a feeling of rightness. I had a strong sensation of seeing deeply into the problem and understanding it and knowing that I was right — a certain kind of inevitability. With these sensations surging through me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom, almost reverently, afraid to disturb whatever strange magic was going on in my head, and I went to the kitchen. There, I sat down at my ramshackle kitchen table. I got out the pages of my calculations, by now curling and stained. A tiny bit of daylight was starting to seep through the window.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Hemingway’s admonition to work alone, Agnes Martin’s assertion that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” and Keats’s exaltation of solitude as the seedbed of the imagination, Lightman adds:
Although I was oblivious to myself, my body, and everything around me, the fact is I was completely alone. I don’t think any other person in the world would have been able to help me at that moment. And I didn’t want any help. I had all of these sensations and revelations going on in my head, and being alone with all that was an essential part of it.
At that solitary kitchen table, Lightman finally solved his problem and proved that that the conjecture at the heart of his theory was true. He would go on to have similar revelations over the years, not only in other scientific projects but also in his work as a novelist. He writes of this supreme testament to the common creative force animating art and science:
As a novelist, I’ve experienced the same sensation. When I suddenly understand a character I’ve been struggling with, or find a lovely way of describing a scene, I am lifted out of the water, and I plane. I’ve read the accounts of other writers, musicians, and actors, and I think that the sensation and process are almost identical in all creative activities. The pattern seems universal: The study and hard work. The prepared mind. The being stuck. The sudden shift. The letting go of control. The letting go of self.
This act of letting go, Lightman suggests, is a surrender to the mystery of life. With an eye to Einstein’s famous proclamation, he considers the meaning of the mysterious:
I believe that [Einstein] 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 edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened… I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery.
Lightman’s A Sense of the Mysterious remains one of the finest, most poetic science books ever written. Complement this particular fragment with Hannah Arendt on the life-expanding value of unanswerable questions and Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Lightman on science and spirituality and why we long for immortality in an impermanent universe.
Published February 10, 2016