Piece image

This I Believe - Alan Lightman

From: This I Believe
Series: This I Believe
Length: 03:59

Astrophysicist and novelist Alan Lightman believes that mysteries inspire our greatest creativity. Read the full description.

Tiblogobluesmallrgb_small HOST INTRO: Alan Lightman is an astrophysicist and novelist teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Einstein's Dreams and A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit. Lightman and his wife, Jean, started the Harpswell Foundation to help disadvantaged students obtain education in Cambodia. Here is Alan Lightman with his essay for This I Believe. ESSAY TEXT: I believe in the power of the unknown. I believe that a sense of the unknown propels us in all of our creative activities, from science to art. When I was a child, after bedtime I would often get out of my bed in my pajamas, go to the window, and stare at the stars. I had so many questions. How far away were those tiny points of light? Did space go on forever and ever, or was there some end to space, some giant edge. And if so, what lay beyond the edge? Another of my childhood questions: Did time go on forever? I looked at pictures of my parents and grandparents and tried to imagine their parents, and so on, back through the generations, back and back through time. Looking out of my bedroom window into the vastness of space, time seemed to stretch forward and backward without end, engulfing me, engulfing my parents and great-grandparents, the entire history of earth. Does time go on forever? Or is there some beginning of time? And if so, what came before? When I grew up, I became a professional astrophysicist. Although I never answered any of these questions, they continued to challenge me, to haunt me, to drive me in my scientific research, to cause me live on tuna fish and no sleep for days at a time while I was obsessed with a science problem. These same questions, and questions like them, challenge and haunt the leading scientists of today. Einstein once wrote that "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." What did Einstein mean by "the mysterious?" I don't think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I think that he 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 boundary between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened. Scientists are happy, of course, when they find answers to questions. But scientists are also happy when they become stuck, when they discover interesting questions that they cannot answer. Because that is when their imaginations and creativity are set on fire. That is when the greatest progress occurs. One of the Holy Grails in physics is to find the so-called Theory of Everything, the final theory that will encompass all the fundamental laws of nature. I, for one, hope that we never find that final theory. I hope that there are always things that we don't know -- about the physical world as well as about ourselves. I believe in the creative power of the unknown. I believe in the exhilaration of standing at the boundary between the known and the unknown. I believe in the unanswered questions of children.

To hear the full audio, sign up for a free PRX account or log in.

Also in the This I Believe series

Piece image

This I Believe - Amy Tan (04:17)
From: This I Believe

Acclaimed writer Amy Tan believes in ghosts and the messages of joy, love and peace they bring her.
Piece image

This I Believe - Luis Urrea (03:57)
From: This I Believe

Luis Urrea believes he is a better writer and better person when he’s open to the world around him.
Piece image

This I Believe - Eve Birch (03:47)
From: This I Believe

Tired of chasing personal prosperity, Eve Birch now believes in an American dream of shared success.
Piece image

This I Believe - Muhammad Ali (02:54)
From: This I Believe

To be the “Greatest of All Time,” boxing legend Muhammad Ali says you have to believe in yourself.
Piece image

This I Believe - Matt Harding (02:47)
From: This I Believe

By dancing around the world, Internet video star Matt Harding believes he’s helping to unite people.
Piece image

This I Believe - Van Jones (04:05)
From: This I Believe

Environmental activist and White House advisor Van Jones believes in making his late father proud.
Piece image

This I Believe - Macklin Levine (02:35)
From: This I Believe

She's only 12, but Macklin Levine is already old enough to appreciate—and believe in—The Beatles.
Piece image

This I Believe - Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton (03:37)
From: This I Believe

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton believe in forgiveness, but from different perspectives.
Piece image

This I Believe - Russel Honoré (04:03)
From: This I Believe

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré believes hard work can build character and promote freedom.
Piece image

This I Believe - Sheri White (03:12)
From: This I Believe

Even though we tend to focus on our differences, Sheri White believes there is much that unites us.

Piece Description

HOST INTRO: Alan Lightman is an astrophysicist and novelist teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Einstein's Dreams and A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit. Lightman and his wife, Jean, started the Harpswell Foundation to help disadvantaged students obtain education in Cambodia. Here is Alan Lightman with his essay for This I Believe. ESSAY TEXT: I believe in the power of the unknown. I believe that a sense of the unknown propels us in all of our creative activities, from science to art. When I was a child, after bedtime I would often get out of my bed in my pajamas, go to the window, and stare at the stars. I had so many questions. How far away were those tiny points of light? Did space go on forever and ever, or was there some end to space, some giant edge. And if so, what lay beyond the edge? Another of my childhood questions: Did time go on forever? I looked at pictures of my parents and grandparents and tried to imagine their parents, and so on, back through the generations, back and back through time. Looking out of my bedroom window into the vastness of space, time seemed to stretch forward and backward without end, engulfing me, engulfing my parents and great-grandparents, the entire history of earth. Does time go on forever? Or is there some beginning of time? And if so, what came before? When I grew up, I became a professional astrophysicist. Although I never answered any of these questions, they continued to challenge me, to haunt me, to drive me in my scientific research, to cause me live on tuna fish and no sleep for days at a time while I was obsessed with a science problem. These same questions, and questions like them, challenge and haunt the leading scientists of today. Einstein once wrote that "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." What did Einstein mean by "the mysterious?" I don't think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I think that he 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 boundary between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened. Scientists are happy, of course, when they find answers to questions. But scientists are also happy when they become stuck, when they discover interesting questions that they cannot answer. Because that is when their imaginations and creativity are set on fire. That is when the greatest progress occurs. One of the Holy Grails in physics is to find the so-called Theory of Everything, the final theory that will encompass all the fundamental laws of nature. I, for one, hope that we never find that final theory. I hope that there are always things that we don't know -- about the physical world as well as about ourselves. I believe in the creative power of the unknown. I believe in the exhilaration of standing at the boundary between the known and the unknown. I believe in the unanswered questions of children.

Additional Files

Related Website

http://www.thisibelieve.org