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Dance for Two: Essays Paperback – March 26, 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
Physicist and novelist (Good Benito) Lightman brings his characteristic sense of wonder and awe to these concise discussions of the origins of the universe. Previously published in two collections of the 1980s (Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe and A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court), these 21 graceful essays combine examinations of how birds fly, theoretical underpinnings of time travel and the gravitational forces impinging on a ballerina, as well as snippets of scientific history?a profile of atomic physicist Niels Bohr, imaginary encounters with Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison?and autobiographical glimpses of Lightman's own scientific career. Several selections are parables or fables, for instance, his whimsical adventures in Ironland, where everything is made of iron, and an evocation of a Persian city whose denizens are unable to leave?a metaphor for how scientists construct or abandon theories. On a more serious note, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lightman calls for more funding of pure research and explores how we blind ourselves to the dangers nuclear weapons pose to the Earth's survival.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
First, the good news. This book contains some of the best essays from one of the hottest science writers today. Astrophysicist Lightman writes with a fluid, minimalist style that hits home for many readers. His topics are personal and familiar: e.g., how he chose a career in science; the relationship between student and teacher; and the intuitive nature of scientific discovery. It's quality material. The bad news is that all but one of these essays have been published before?twice. They appeared first as magazine pieces and were then anthologized in two books, Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe (1984) and A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court (1986). Lightman's recent novels, Einstein's Dreams (LJ 11/15/92) and Good Benito (LJ 2/1/95), were surprise best sellers, and this book seems like an attempt to cash in on the author's popularity by recycling old material. His newer fans might be interested, but many public libraries already own the material in one form or another. If so, there is no compelling reason to purchase this book.
-?Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, Fla.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Have you ever pondered that the upward force generated by the churning electrons and protons in the molecules of the stage floor opposes and exactly counterbalances the downward force that the weight of the ballerina exerts on the floor? Or that as she completes her leap, the earth's orbit readjusts itself by a trillionth of an atom's width? Lightman has pondered these and other matters, and describes all in graceful, accurate and compelling prose.
Several events in the book, like the building of a bomb shelter, appear in a fictional setting in Lightman's novel "Good Benito," leading me to wonder if other chapters of his first novel are autobiographical, also.
Several humorous essays describe imaginary visits by Newton, Einstein, and others to Lightman's twilight zone. These visits always end with an unexpectd twist, leaving this reader gasping for reality--and for more.
One of Lightman's many perceptive messages can be found on p. 95 where he says, "Science offers little comfort to anyone who asks to leave behind a personal message in his work." Of course, this impersonality is undoubtedly the key to the great success of science. But in bringing his own wry and perceptive slant to 'writing' about science, Lightman is able to have his cake and eat it too, conveying an entertaining message which is both scientifically informative and yet gratifyingly personal.
_Dance for Two_ is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. "It seems to me," Lightman observes, "that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something-this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws." And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:
"Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven."
The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, "Pas de Deux," describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.
Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.
There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, "Progress," Lightman expresses his concern about society's headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that "we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life." In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science-science for science's sake-arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth ("there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants"), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. "If we stop paying for pure science today," he argues, "there will be no applied science tomorrow."
In all, _Dance for Two_ is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I've read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.
"Technology makes more and more giant steps.
It makes planes, trains and automobiles accelerate quicker and quicker and travel faster and faster.
It makes buildings taller and taller, and depths deeper and deeper. It makes things more and more visible through greater and greater levels of magnification.
It makes materials that have greater and greater resilience, and it creates bombs that explode with greater and greater magnitude and intensity that can even destroy the very same highly resilient materials that it created in the first place.
It creates quicker and quicker ways of electronic mass communication, and speedier and speedier ways of spreading both information and misinformation at lightning speeds.
It creates the capabilities of developing larger and larger networks of more and more instantaneous friendships, and storing more and more information in bigger and bigger databases.
And it has a way of making us believe that all these represent more and more progress, and enslaves us so that there are more and more dependencies on the more and more technologies that are being created."