Alan Lightman’s Belgrade Lecture: The Intricate Artistry of Scientific Exploration

 Rainer Maria Rilke once said that in art we should love the questions themselves. As an individual raised on questioning the world and people surrounding me as well as someone who has been in steady dialogue with art since I can remember, I truly agree with this statement. Art, with all its forms, has always been my refuge and a place where I learnt never to believe in definite answers but to use every opportunity to seek novel routes. Yugoslav drama theatre’s recent production of Einstein’s Dreams directed by Slobodan Unkovski has brought things into motion resulting in Alan Lightman visiting Belgrade and giving a wonderful lecture on what it means to have your inner artist and scientist cross paths throughout your existence.

The play Einstein’s Dreams is based on Lightman’s novel, which was first published in 1992. Lightman is an American physicist and writer whose numerous contributions to the arena of science have been largely discussed and acknowledged. His writing has also been praised, both in terms of his oeuvre dealing with “the mind of science” and his fiction. Einstein’s Dreams has been translated into over thirty languages and was runner up for the 1994 PEN New England Award.

His Belgrade lecture dealt with the novel’s intricacies in terms of what it means to be involved simultaneously in the domains of art and science. Lightman has managed to weave a myriad of thought-provoking statements into a cohesive narrative of utmost strength and clarity. He started by elaborating the fact that the first point of disaccord between an artist and a scientist lies in their point of view regarding the naming of things. A physicist attempts to name a thing, whereas an artist avoids any such endeavour. He was adamant to point out that every reader approaches a work of art in a particular way corresponding to their life experience. For example, love is a word used widely in any given art form. As a word, it can be defined in various ways for there are different types of love. The love we feel for our mother’s understanding differs from the one we feel towards a friend who rushes to our side in times of great need. Yet both of these emotions are unlike the one you sense when you have finished making love to your partner. They are all singular entities for you bring your own experience into the process. The same goes for works of art, for the key element is the so-called participatory experience. You, as an individual involved in experiencing any work, shape the process by your own experience of life, which is probably unlike any other.

“Every reader will travel depending on their own life experience.”

Lightman has voiced his view that when you create art you are adamant to bypass the brain and aim straight for the stomach and heart of the person partaking in the process by experiencing it firsthand and are thereby making life worth living due to numerous exquisite ambiguities that are innate to our humanity. However, another point of disagreement between practitioners of art and scientists was raised for the former are in no way interested in definite answers, whereas the latter are educated not to delve in the realm of questions that cannot be answered. This section of the lecture was concluded by a powerful statement of the fact that both questions with and without a definite answer are building blocks of what it means to be human.


This was followed by an elaborate exploration of the common ground between science and the arts. Both dimensions are vast arenas made of individuals seeking beauty and agreeing that even though it is difficult to define (just like the previous explication concerning love and all its forms), beauty is known by both artists and scientists when they see it at work. Furthermore, the element of inevitability or necessity is key to art and science for in the case of the former, viewers and readers wouldn’t change any element of the given work of art, which is true for the latter too, for one couldn’t change a single letter of a scientific theory without ruining its overall truth and idea. Lightman also added simplicity and imagination to strings uniting the two forms of exploring the world and creating it anew.

The most poignant part of this section of his lecture dealt with the concept of emotional truth. Lightman opted to use the ending of James Joyce’s work The Dead to elaborate on this very true and simple idea. The way Joyce decided to write the ending corresponds to the way readers experience the flow of the narrative, i.e. it is equivalent to their own life experience. Gabriel realizes that there has been a whole new side of his wife’s life and emotions that he wasn’t aware of. She has always been more affectionate towards a dead boy from her past who was now brought back into her mind by gentle music playing in her surroundings. He also understands that he never felt that sort of passion and affection towards anyone and the story ends with him watching her asleep while being burdened by the turmoil of emotion moving in the direction of negating their entire relationship for he feels as if they never were husband and wife at all. This sort of ending is in accord with out intrinsic human nature.

By closing his lecture with this literary explication, Lightman completes the circle for he brought the audience’s attention back to the beginning of his talk by showing us that both scientists and artists seek truth. Scientists do it on the outside, in the external world of mass and force, whereas artists do it inside, in the body and mind, but both endeavours are singular forms of art and demand great sacrifice, patience and skill.

 

 

Share Button
Sanja Gligorić

Sanja Gligorić

Sanja Gligorić studied English Language, Literature and Culture in Belgrade. She enjoys reading, writing and translating.
Sanja Gligorić