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Pas de Deux
In the soft blue light, the ballerina glides across the stage and takes to the air, her toes touching Earth imperceptibly. Sauté, batterie, sauté. Legs cross and flutter, arms unfold into an open arch. The ballerina knows that the easiest way to ruin a good performance is to think too much about what her body is doing. Better to trust in the years of daily exercises, the muscles’ own understanding of force and balance.
While she dances, Nature is playing its own part, flawlessly and with absolute reliability. On pointe, the ballerina’s own weight is precisely balanced by the push of floor against shoe, the molecules in contact squeezed just the right amount to counter force with equal force. Gravity balanced with electricity,
An invisible line runs from the center of the Earth through the ballerina’s point of contact and upward. If her own center should drift a centimeter from this line, gravitational torques will topple her. She knows nothing of mechanics, but she can hover on her toes for minutes at a time, and her body is continuously making the tiny corrections that reveal an intimacy with torque and inertia.
Gravity has the elegant property of acceleration everything equally. As a result, astronauts become weightless, orbiting Earth on exactly the same trajectories as their spaceships and thus seeming to float within. Einstein understood this better than anyone and described gravity with a theory more geometry than physics, more curves than forces. The ballerina, leaping upward lightly, hands weightless for a moment amid flowers she has dropped midair, all falling on the same trajectory.
Not she prepares for a pirouette, right leg moving back to fourth position, pushing off one foot, arms coming in to speed the turn. Before losing balance she gets four rotations. Make dancers, on demi-pointe and with greater contact area, can sometimes go six or eight. The ballerina recovers well, giving her spin smoothly back to Earth and remembering to land in fifth position smiling. Briefly her feet come to rest, caught between the passage of spin and the friction of the floor. Friction is important. Every body persists in its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by outside forces. Every action requires a reaction.
The ballerina depends on the constancy of the laws of physics, even though she herself is slightly unpredictable. In this same performance last night she went only three and a half turns through her first pirouette, and then took the arabesque several feet from where she takes it now. Regardless of these discrepancies, the atoms in the floor, wherever she happens to touch and at one millisecond’s notice, must be prepared to respond with faithful accuracy. Newton’s laws, Coulomb’s force, and the charge of electrons must be identical night after night—otherwise, the ballerina will misjudge the resiliency of the floor or the needed moment of inertia. Her art is more beautiful in its uncertainty. Nature’s art comes in its certainty.
The ballerina assumes one pose after another, each fragile and symmetrical. In the physics of solids, crystal structures can be found that appear identical after rotations by one-half, one-third, one-quarter, and one-sixth of a circle. Crystals with one-fifth and one-seventh symmetries do not exist because space cannot be filled with touch pentagons or septagons. The ballerina reflects a series of natural forms. She is first ethereal, then lyrical. She has struggled for years to develop a personal style, embellished...
About the Author-
- Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including Einstein’s Dreams, which was an international bestseller, and The Diagnosis, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the author of three collections of essays and several books on science. His latest work is the memoir of his family, Screening Room. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. Since beginning his career as a theoretical physicist, Lightman has taught at Harvard and at MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and in the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.
March 25, 1996
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.
December 1, 1995
A physicist with a literary bent, Lightman earned praise for his first novel, Einstein's Dreams, which sold more than 400,000 copies. Here he offers a series of literary and scientific essays.
March 1, 1996
Physicist-novelist Lightman has creamed off two dozen of his better essays of the past 15 years. He describes their common theme as the "lived part of science," where the human character inserts itself into scientific rigor. For example, the workings of eyesight are physically explainable, which Lightman proceeds to illustrate in a boy-meets-girl scenario; but science is helpless in explaining what does or doesn't happen after they see each other. Another conundrum: once he couldn't be sure the earth was round. Was he unscientifically accepting the fact on faith, or could he prove it? Elsewhere, he switches topics from scientific doubt to scientific overconfidence, addressing mistakes made by major physicists. Errors by Landau and Einstein, for example, occurred during their youthful explosions of ingenuity, a tangent Lightman follows in a related essay speculating on why physicists' most productive years are over by their mid-30s. Lightman's meshing and browseable pieces--written in an economical style, confronting the literary and scientific, the ethereal and corporeal--each pique us with an original observation or two. ((Reviewed March 1, 1996))(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 1996, American Library Association.)
PublisherKnopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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