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A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (2005) by Alan Lightman. New York: Vintage.
The author has credentials from prestigious centers of physics research. He obtained his Bachelor's degree in physics from Princeton University and Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology. One of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman, was a member of his dissertation committee. Most of Lightman's academic research and teaching took place at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. How could an individual who is obviously gifted in science and mathematics have produced such a wonderful work of fiction as Einstein's Dreams (1993), a novel about different conceptions of time? His book of essays provides some answers to this question through his description of his early development and subsequent life as a physicist and novelist. They are a delightful exploration of the self-education of an individual who was interested in science, mathematics and the humanities from an early age. At the same time that Lightman and his friends were constructing electronic devices, he was also writing poetry. In college he decided to delay his literary career until after he became a physicist. Lightman says that thirty-six years is the average age that Nobel Prize winners in physics conducted their important research.In the first essay, A Sense of the Mysterious, Lightman discusses his early interests in science, mathematics and poetry. Later, as a graduate student of the California Institute of Technology, he was challenged by his thesis adviser, Kip Thorne, to design an encompassing geometrical theory of gravity that included several theories. He learned from this experience that successful research in physics and all scientific areas must be based upon a "well-posed problem." He also writes about the "creative moment" in his scientific research and literary work, a mysterious sensation that occurred after he worked hard on solving physics problems and writing fiction.
Some of the essays that will provide the gifted student with useful information about science, mathematics and literature are the following: The one entitled Words distinguishes between scientific and fiction writing. Lightman argues that scientific writing is based upon strict naming or the definition of terms by using mathematics, precisely written statements and logical-reductionist analysis. However, writing fiction has no such restrictions because they would destroy its imaginary and emotional characteristics. Lightman's Metaphors in Science has many interesting examples concerning how famous physicists have taken events from everyday life to explain complicated phenomena, e.g., Newton used the oblique deflection of a ball with a tennis racket to explain his theory of the corpuscular nature of light, and Maxwell posited a mechanical model for the transmission of electrical and magnetic waves through displacement of the ether. Inventions of the Mind includes a fascinating discussion of differences between theoretical and applied mathematics in the context of a visit to the citadel of mathematical investigations, Fine Hall at Princeton University. In this perambulating essay the author discusses Einstein's position that the key to understanding physical phenomena can be deduced through mathematical reasoning rather than by making observations. He also gives a brief history of mathematical concepts (irrational numbers, prime numbers and non-Euclidean geometry) related to applied mathematics and the search for a perfect proof. He explains that both mathematicians and physicists strive for elegant and aesthetically pleasing proofs. The essay concludes by addressing the following question: "Why does it happen that pure mathematics so often finds application to nature?" (p. 80)
The high points of this book are the discussions of the lives and scientific work of Albert Einstein in The Contradictory Genius, and Richard Feynman in The One and Only. Lightman provides many unique insights into these geniuses. Both essays provide the gifted student with concise summaries of their personal backgrounds and major contributions to understanding the physical world. According to Lightman, Einstein's stubbornness and individuality served him well during the early part of his career when he developed the theories of relativity. But these traits eventually resulted in a brittleness of thought which led to his rejection of quantum mechanics. In contrast to Einstein, Richard Feynman's interests were completely focused on scientific research and theory with little respect for the humanities and philosophy. Both received a Nobel Prize in physics.
There are few authors in any field or genre who can match the clarity and informativeness of Lightman's writing. It is a pleasure to read these clearly written and knowledgeable essays. They can serve as a model and inspiration for gifted students who are particularly interested in science and mathematics, and help them to develop their own writing style. Before retiring from MIT in 2002, Lightman designed writing programs in the humanities and science. Here are some quotations for the aspiring scientist and science writer that show his views on physics:
"I learned many things about science from Kip. One of the most important was the concept of the 'well-posed problem.' A well-posed problem is a problem that can be stated with enough clarity and definiteness that it is guaranteed a solution. Such a solution might require ten years, or a hundred, but there should be a definite solution. While it is true that science is constantly revising itself to respond to new information and ideas, at any moment scientists are working on well-posed problems." A Sense of the Mysterious, pp. 18-19
"Einstein was both a man of high principles and an opportunist, a loner and an activist, a liberal and an elitist, a great theoretician and a practical examiner of patents. By the time he was forty, he was well aware of his high place in history. Yet he showed himself capable of humility and kindness. 'A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead,' he once wrote. In Einstein's last decade of life, his ophthalmologist in Princeton checked his eyes annually and invariably told the old man that his glasses would be much improved with a new prescription. And Einstein would invariably reply with a smile: 'A friend in New York sends me these simple magnifying glasses as a gift each year, and if they do no real harm, Henry, I prefer not to change them. I don't want to hurt his feelings.'" The Contradictory Genius, pp. 111-112
-Two Useful Books for Teachers of the Gifted -
Teaching Class Clowns (And What They Can Teach Us) (2006) by William Watson Purkey. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Many gifted students express their frustration with school by becoming hostile, low-achievers, while others may release their tensions and dissatisfactions through disruptive humor and joking. Purkey's book provides an excellent description of the characteristics of class clowns and makes recommendations concerning how to teach them. His Signature Tendencies of Class Clowns - investing, asserting, relating and coping - serve as a framework for studying and teaching these students. Purkey stresses that classrooms need more humor, and class clowns can be taught to steer their joking behavior and sense of humor in a positive direction. He says that many famous comedians were class clowns, e.g., Steve Allen, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Johnny Carson, Dick Gregory and Bob Hope. This book would be particularly instructive for young teachers who are just learning about the ups and downs of different types of classroom behaviors.
The Road to Wisdom, Plain and Simple: Shaping Intelligence-Black Style (2005) by Searetha Smith-Collins. New York: Vantage Press. This book can be used by teachers to stimulate the academic and social development of gifted black students. Smith-Collins is a black educator and former school administrator. She has analyzed the value systems of her culture and designed teaching prescriptions based upon using proverbs to motivate black students. The book contains a detailed history of black culture and numerous proverbs for use in the classroom. Although she concentrates on educating these students, her analysis and ideas can be applied to all social classes and ethnic groups. Educators who are designing strategies for identifying and teaching gifted black students will find Smith-Collins' book to be very helpful.
A Study in the Synergy of Giftedness: Sinclair Lewis and the Influence of Medical Research on His Writing
Michael E. Walters Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools
Many American writers from the 1920s to the 1960s had fathers who were medical doctors, e.g., Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara. Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. He grew up in a small town (Sauk Centre, Minnesota), and was influenced by his father's medical methodology of observation, research and analysis. This essay is based on the excellent biography by Richard Lingeman entitled, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (2002, Random House).
Arrowsmith (1925), a story about the medical profession, is one of Lewis's enduring works. The illnesses he described were related to social and cultural factors. In this respect it is as timely today as when it was first published. Besides his father, Lewis was influenced by a neighbor in Hartford, Connecticut - Dr. Thomas Hepburn, an expert in venereal disease. He was also the father of the great American actress and Academy Award Winner, Katharine Hepburn.
Lewis demonstrated synergy with the American bacteriologist, Dr. Paul De Kruif, who had worked at the most famous medical research center in the world during the 1920s, the Rockefeller Institute, and is still a world renowned research institution. De Kruif worked so closely with Lewis on Arrowsmith that he was considered to be a co-author who received 25% of the royalties. He particularly helped Lewis to understand the relationship between medical research and public health. For example, they went to the Carribean to study public health problems in a Third World setting, and then proceeded to England where they interviewed some of the top scientific experts in tropical diseases. The synergy between De Kruif and Lewis showed how the sensibilities of a scientist and a gifted writer can produce an artistic fusion, as Lewis described in a letter to the writer and editor, H.L. Mencken: "Paul De Kruif proves to have as much synthetic fictional imagination as he has scientific knowledge, and that's one hell of a lot. . . ." (Lingeman, 2002, p.227)
Two of the most significant characters in Arrowsmith resonate with today's American society. At the time Lewis wrote this book, the medical profession was considered a preserve for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Lewis created a black doctor, Dr. Oliver Marchand, who was educated at Howard University. Second, the mentor of the main character, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, was a German-Jewish laboratory researcher named Dr. Max Gottlieb. When the book was published, almost every major medical school in the United States had a quota system for Jewish students.
Lewis saw the medical researcher as a paradigm for the humanism of the twentieth century, and described this paradigm as the "religion of science" and "the religion of work." (Lingeman, 2002, pp. 224-225) Lewis also believed that a writer should follow both "religions." Although he won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1925, he refused to accept it. The composition of the book represents a study in the synergy of giftedness. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith's sensibility as a gifted individual continues to inspire gifted students and their teachers.
Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, August-September 2006