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A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit

3.76  ·  Rating Details  ·  238 Ratings  ·  28 Reviews
From the bestselling author of Einstein's Dreams comes this lyrical and insightful collection of science writing that delves into the mysteries of the scientific process and exposes its beauty and intrigue.In these brilliant essays, Lightman explores the emotional life of science, the power of imagination, the creative moment, and the alternate ways in which scientists and ...more
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published January 18th 2005 by Pantheon (first published 2005)
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Mar 03, 2013 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a pleasant collection of essays about being a scientist, and the relationship between science and the humanities. Alan Lightman describes what it feels like to work in science, to make discoveries, and to fail to get decent results. He writes about the joy of making a real scientific discovery--the realization that one has found something beautiful, and perhaps elegant. That joy might be tempered by the thought that if one scientist did not make the discovery, another would likely d ...more
I've been wondering if the (un)discipline of physics has suffered the fate that so commonly befalls victims: that is, to become the bully. In the jostle for space and acceptance today by religion and science, may one speculate that this is what has happened? I keep meeting physicists who don’t even seem to realise that they are acting in ways which are not dissimilar to the methods of the administration of Christianity and some other religions against which they fought for so long. If only all s ...more
Nov 04, 2008 Huyen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hah, is there any way I can give Alan Lightman neutron stars rather than just normal stars? His writing shines like a supernova, attracts like a black hole and flows smoothly like liquid helium. Ok, enough for my experiment with physicsy hyperbole. But of course, I’m no Lightman. He is a rare talent with both an impressive physics background and an elegant style of writing. If you believe physics and literary prose are two parallel lines that never meet, Lightman proves you wrong, life isn’t bor ...more
Kylie Briggs
I read Einstein's dreams in Jr. High. Loved it. Always said I wanted to read more Alan Lightman. I love his use of words.

Here's the thing. I have never been interested in science. But I am now married to a man who loves it. So we've been watching cosmos and listen to SGU. I love cosmos but only somewhat enjoy SGU. Anyways, what I have realized is that the reason I always thought I didn't like science was because of how it was taught to me. My teachers insisted I needed whatever it was they were
John Wood
Mar 31, 2014 John Wood rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Occasionally I decide to read something a bit more educational. This collection of essays, by Alan Lightman, explores how we use science to understand our world. Included are essays on not only how we use our minds, but also about several famous scientists and the complexity of handling the "wired world". The author uses his expertise, not only as a scientist, but as a writer to deliver interesting viewpoints that can be understood by most people without much difficulty. It was enjoyable, for me ...more
Oct 02, 2013 Dan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this book because I was trying to seek balance and direction within the field of science and Lightman being a physicist/novelist seemed like a good person to try to find that balance through. After reading this collection I realized I got the advice I was seeking. I very much preferred the stories written more recently over Lightman’s early pieces because he tended to voice his own opinion more frequently and with more force in the later work. The chapter dealing with the lives of in ...more
Daniel R.
This book is primarily a collection of essays that have previously appeared in various other magazines and publications. The essays cover a wide range of topics and range from his personal observations about being a scientist to short biographies about other scientists. Overall I didn't find the book that engaging. While the essays were organized well, I didn't find themes that followed through all of them to really tie the book together. They felt just like a collection that had been repackaged ...more
Sep 27, 2008 Jen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My favorite of Lightman's works remains the textbook from my "Physics for Poets" class in college. Nothing else has struck me as so tightly, lucidly luminous. Yet sections of this one come close.

It's really a series of essays. He grapples with his own fear of failure (if you haven't made it in science by 35, is it over?)... maybe it's just me at 34, but this was my least favorite chapter. (Too close to home, anybody? Good thing I'm not a scientist! He seems to think us artsy types improve with t
Apr 25, 2015 Диана rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
A collection of essays by the physicist and novelist Alan Lightman which I really enjoyed. Most favourite, and of most value I found to be the first ('A sense of the mysterious') and especially last ('Prisoners of the wired world') essays in the book - they are very philosophical, touching on important topics. Most of the rest of the essays are about physicists, and/or touch on the topics of the scientific and artistic endeavours, of creativity. All essays are written in a really gentle, flowing ...more
Bookmarks Magazine

Lightman is an unusual breed-an astrophysicist and bestselling novelist. In these 11 essays, he casts a romantic light on scientific discovery and conveys a charming sense of how he ended up with feet in the seeminlyg incongruous two camps. Critics especially lauded the short pieces attempting to reconcile Lightman's two worlds. But at times, Lightman forgets that "most people don't automatically reach for a pencil and start calculating angles when they notice the wake from a boat" (New York Tim

Dec 28, 2014 Kay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lightman is the rare scientist who has a dual career in the sciences and the humanities. With the insight of a poets he talks about the early loss of invention in the lives of so many scientists and the loss of something civilized with everyone being so hooked into gadgets. Interspersed with his personal introspection and won earrings are short essays on some of twentieth century scientists.
Nov 08, 2010 Linda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
"There are about a hundred globular clusters in our galaxy. Through a telescope, a globular cluster appears as a beautiful, shining ball of light. Imagine: a hundred thousand stars all concentrated together in a tight ball, whizzing about like angry bees in a bee's nest."

"Richard Feynman once walked into my tiny office at Caltech and, in twenty minutes at the blackboard, outlined the basic equations for the quantum evaporation of spinning black holes, an ingenious idea that had just occurred to
Joe Lorenz
Mar 11, 2016 Joe Lorenz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lightman is one of my favorite science authors.....Astrophysicist at Caltech under some of the best. (Feynman was on his dissertation committee) retired from successful career in research science at around 35 to pursue his passion for writing . Teaches humanities at MIT now and spins some damn good work to boot
Courtney Johnston
Oh, it's fine I s'pose, but really - why bother when you can read Freeman Dyson?

Having said that, there's an interesting chapter on the use of metaphor in science, and nice sketches of Einstein and Feynmann (and a tempered chapter on Edward Teller). The sketch of Vera Rubin however doesn't excite curiosity.

The fault with the collection in my view is that the opening chapter (about Lightman's dual career as physicist and essayist/writer, and his observations on theoretical science as a young man'
Graeme Roberts
Apr 14, 2016 Graeme Roberts rated it it was amazing
Elegant and interesting essays. I loved the story of Vera Rubin, the astronomer.

Perhaps too many words are dedicated to Mr. Lightman's hard adjustment to not achieving greatness in theoretical physics. To his credit, he switched to writing and teaching, instead of conventional academic administration. How hard it is for men feted as juvenile prodigies to accept that they are just ordinary people.
Ashley Fournier
Dec 09, 2015 Ashley Fournier rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in physics, cosmology or writing
Alan Lightman has created a collection of essays that were previously published in various magazines. The essays are on a range of subjects, reflecting the complexity of the author himself. Lightman is a professor of both physics and creative writing at MIT. I really enjoyed his clear writing style and the way he ties together physics, cosmology, writing, and other philosophical thoughts.
Love Lightman's work. He makes concepts that are incredibly complicated seem obvious or like common sense. To appreciate this book of essays however, you'll need to have an interest in physics. Some of the stellar essays included: The Contradictory Genius, which is about Einstein, of whom I can never get enough; also Prisoner of the Wired World, which I believe speaks for itself, was exceptional.
Phyllis Jennings
OK, I can't understand it- physics. Yet even the glimpses I get into physics and physicists (Einstein, Feynman, et al) and mathematicians is divine. Somehow I've always identified with these very abstract thinkers and it is a joy to step into their world here- Alan Lightman's gorgeous understated and distilled prose puts me into a place I love.
Eli Brooke
Some of the essays are more interesting than others, but as a collection it feels kind of thrown together, and there are whole passages that feel strangely familiar from one essay to the next. Really like Lightman's overall style and subject matter, so I'll go with "liked it" over "it was ok".
Behrooz Azarakhshi
Apr 19, 2007 Behrooz Azarakhshi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Scientists and college students
A sense of mysterious is about 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 boundary between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.
Apr 15, 2007 Lauren rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: science buffs and science influenced artists
This is a great, clear, and moving mini survey of the conversations around science and art. Lightman has a lovely sense with words and a tone of honesty and awe. I'm so gla to have picked this up! Its written in neat essays, so you cna read one every once in a while, or all at once.
Aug 12, 2009 Doug rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nice collection of essays, some stronger than others...some reflective, others about great personalities in science (Feynman, Teller, Einstein). He writes well, spare prose, affecting and effective.
Jan 17, 2009 Amy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I can't seem to make it through the first intolerably self-indulgent, autobiographical essay the point of which seems to be the author's incomprehensible brilliance. Waiting for insights...
Mar 29, 2008 Mary rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting series of essays. If you like to read about science, you will probably find this book worthwhile.
Jul 07, 2009 Irmgard marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I am looking forward to reading this book, since I loved Lightman's book about Einstein's physics
Aug 05, 2010 Eli rated it liked it
Nothing earth-shattering; just a solid collection of Lightman's rich, lyrical essays on science.
Laura Doyle
Dec 01, 2009 Laura Doyle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, humanity
Beautiful book...the heart that is missing from pure scientific interest.
Nov 06, 2009 Kelly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A beautiful book... I highly suggest this!
Monkey marked it as to-read
Apr 29, 2016
Jeanette Thomason
Jeanette Thomason rated it really liked it
Apr 28, 2016
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Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist, and essayist born in Memphis, Tennessee. He is an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the international bestseller Einstein's Dreams.

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