Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Aristotle Teaches Einstein

Hal got me to go with her to the public library again last night. With a Joan Didion novel and another by Joyce Carol Oates in her hands, she passed me trying to balance Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams in my own hands while leafing through Annie Dillard's For the Time Being. "Dad, I'm going to get some non-fiction too," she told me and ended up also with two books on mental illness, one on dianectics, one on the "science" of dreams, and a college-level introduction to psychology by "Dr. Joseph G. Johnson." Whew!

Now she'd inspired me to check out from the physics section Lightman's book Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe.

I've heard and read from Lightman about how (he thinks) science writing is different from artistic writing. Doesn't that sound a little like Aristotle, who must keep such categories separate? And I've read Lightman's incredible fiction before and have discussed with him its translation into over thirty different languages. "Do you want the translators of your novels to write in the target language like scientists, Dr. Lightman, or like artists," I asked him. He then incredibly, bravely, shows that he has gone beyond Aristotle and his aristotelian logic: "The translators must be both artists and scientists."

So back to our books. I skim this morning through my daughter's intro to psychology textbook, in which Dr. Johnson begins with a history of the science. Aristotle appears early and directly influences the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and then of Rene Descartes on the mind and soul. I look now at Lightman's science book on the history of cosmology ("In memory of Rabbi James Wax of Memphis who always thought about the big picture"). Aristotle figures early, of course, and directly influences Nicholas Copernicus and then Thomas Digges and then Isaac Newton; as you shall see below and infer by the title of this post, Aristotle also influences Einstein profoundly.

The chapter ends breathlessly (as I think about Lightman's persistent Aristotelian distinction between "science writer / artist writer") with these two sentences:
Whether Newton himself was more persuaded by this logical argument or by his religious beliefs, he ended up supporting the Aristotelian tradition of a cosmos without change. That tradition, unchallenged by Einstein, was not questioned until the late 1920s.
-(page 13, my emphasis)

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