Sunday, December 30, 2007

Einstein, Mystery, and Religion

I've been reading sections of Chet Raymo's An Intimate Look at the Night Sky. The book is arranged by seasonal highlights of the night sky, with observation notes followed by essays that tie together the celestial observations with historical and scientific observations. I like Raymo's explanations and analogies. For example, on the subject of light pollution, he writes, "Looking at the night sky from the environs of a city or suburb is the visual equivalent of listening to a live string quartet outdoors in Times Square at rush hour." It's a great little book. Here is a longer quote that I really like. It's from the final essay, which is tied to the final weeks of the year, where we are right now:
Einstein had no use for those people who sought mystery in paranormal fads and superstitions. Nor did his deeply religious nature lead him toward any sort of God fashioned in the image of man. His religion was "humility" in the face of the magnificent structure of nature that can only be imperfectly comprehended. Christmas and Hanukkah celebrate light that comes into darkness and illuminates the world. Not a bad time to consider the ways in which the light of reason illuminates reality. Science illuminates nature but does not deplete its mystery. Science at its best - as practiced by a Galileo, a Herschel, an Einstein, or a Hubble - is an almost religious activity; a deliberate effort to engage intellectually, passionately with the mystery that permeates every particle of existence, every glimmer of light in the night sky. It was the encounter with mystery at the shore of knowledge that inspired Einstein's life work and reinforced his sense of the worthiness of human life. "Measured objectively," he wrote, "what a man can wrest from Truth by passionate striving is utterly Infinitesimal. But the striving frees us from the bonds of self and makes us comrades of those who are the best and the greatest."

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