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Science and Art Share the ‘Aha’ Moment; Lecture Kicks off Princeton’s Pi Day Celebration

For physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, the processes of science and art are often more alike than most people think.


“Creative imagination and inventiveness have always been hallmarks of good science, just as of good writing,” the MIT professor said Friday at the kickoff of Princeton Public Library’s third annual Pi Day celebration. “Writers must conform to certain recognized truths about human nature, just as scientists must conform to truths about non-human nature.”


As both a scientist and a writer, Lightman explores the complex relationship between the sciences and the humanities. His best-selling novel, “Einstein’s Dreams,” a fictional collage of Einstein’s dreams relating to his theory of relativity, is the official book of this year’s Pi Day, which celebrates math, science and the birthday of Nobel physicist Albert Einstein, who lived in Princeton and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study.


“Both the novelist and the scientist are seeking truth,” Lightman said. “For the novelist, truth in the world of the mind and the heart; for the physicist, truth in the world of mass and force.”


Lightman said Einstein’s theory of gravity, which states that gravity is equivalent to acceleration, hangs together like a work of art.


“You’ve all seen paintings or musical compositions where you felt you couldn’t remove one brush stroke or change one note without severely altering the work,” he said.


Lightman believes scientists and artists share the mixed blessing and burden of the creative life and the thrill of what he calls the creative moment — the “aha” moment when a scientist finally realizes the missing piece in some troubling problem.


“Scientists and artists do what they do because they love it and because they cannot imagine doing anything else,” he said.


According to Lightman, the important difference between the two pursuits is that science requires a high level of certainty, while writing or painting requires a degree of abstraction.


“Scientists try to name things, but artists try to avoid naming things,” he said. “Much of the game of science is to pose a problem with enough precision and clarity so that it is guaranteed a solution.


“Artists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers often don’t exist,” he said. “For many artists, the question is more important than the answer.”


Lightman pointed out another thing that distinguishes the processes of art and science: “Every electron is identical, but every love is different.”


According to Lindsey Forden, development director at the Princeton Public Library, Lightman’s dual emphasis on science and humanities is consistent with the way Einstein is viewed in the Princeton community. For this year’s celebration, the library collected Pi Day haikus composed of three, one and four-syllable phrases (rather than the typical five, seven, and five-syllable phrases) and held a math competition, a Rubik’s Cube challenge and a pi recitation contest.

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