A book over the Baltic

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First, the numbers. As I fly to Oslo tonight, I am on my sixth flight in four days. On each of those four days, I have been on the ground in exactly two time zones each. I’ll be stable in one time zone for the next two days, and then be in four different ones on the ground for my three flights on Saturday. My direct flight last night was canceled due to mechanical problems, and so I didn’t get to my hotel until 1:30 AM. I’m tired but not exhausted, which I attribute to my working out yesterday morning and drinking a lot of water. If I am smart I will get to bed early tonight, but I’m not usually so smart when I’m traveling.

Sense of the Mysterious book cover

I’m almost finished reading Alan Lightman‘s Sense of the Mysterious. Though he has written several books, this is the first I have read and, indeed, I had not heard of him before I picked up the book at the Harvard Coop a couple of weeks ago. Lightman was a practicing physicist for many years but now, as I understand it, devotes his time completely to writing. Sense of the Mysterious is a collection of essays on famous physicists such as Einstein and Teller, but also reflects on the author’s former life as a scientist. I don’t usually read books about science for a non-scientific audience because I often find them annoying. I started reading this book with the same trepidation, but I soon decided that Lightman’s reflections on the scientific life he left behind was apropos to some of my own experiences.

While I never was a ‘practicing mathematician’ at a university after I received my Ph.D., I did spend twelve years from start to finish in pursuit of that degree. I hasten to add that I took 5 ‘ years off in the middle of that stretch. Nevertheless, when I did complete my degree I definitely had a sense of beginning a new and different phase of my life. Like Lightman, I miss certain aspects of life where mathematical pursuits could dominate my thoughts for day after day. I miss my math books, even though I know they are safely ensconced in the attic. I long ago ran out of room to fit them in my office when business books and books about the Internet, XML, and web services started to creep into my possession. In truth, I keep about half a dozen of them on the shelf so I can glance over at them for some comfort when I’m in the middle of some phone conference that reminds me of just how different my life is now. My life back then was not better, just different. Some of that is because my wife and I have a family now, our finances have changed, and I now can ponder future phases of my life. None of this is rocket science, as they say, and most of it is attributable to middle age, I suppose.

Lightman’s book is good enough that I will certainly give him another try, perhaps one of his novels. Being a snobby pure mathematician years ago, I never had much of an interest in physics. It is one of my regrets that I never learned and appreciated that branch of science more, but I did try to maintain some sort of life outside my main studies. I remember the story of a brilliant but introverted Junior Fellow in Mathematics at Harvard who hesitated when someone asked him at a cocktail party what he did for a hobby. His eyes finally brightened, he smiled and said ‘Physics!’. I don’t need another hobby, but I can always use more education.

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