Review of “A Curious Mind”

Dava Sobel,

The voice of “A Curious Mind” speaks softly in the noisy blogosphere, seeking connections between science and art. The “Mind” ponders, for example, Jan Vermeer’s depiction of “The Astronomer” alone in his study, consulting sources rendered in such rich detail that the celestial globe can be traced to a specific maker and the open textbook identified by a diagram on the page. Such musings reflect the dual interests of the “curious” blogger—astrophysicist and author Mario Livio, who has nurtured a lifelong love of art while pursuing his lifelong career as a scientist.

Livio launched his new blog some months ago on the Institute web site. He was encouraged, he said, by the enthusiasm his colleagues expressed for the idea. His first post, on April 23, offered a defense of research in astronomy. This might seem an unnecessary case to make on Hubble turf, but Livio was already reaching beyond the Institute to a wider-desired audience of non-scientists.

“Just as I’d love every educated person to experience at least one Shakespearean play,” he told me, “I want everyone to feel what general relativity is all about—the idea behind the equations, and how it informs our place in the universe.”

To bolster the goals of the blog, Livio simultaneously opened a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The triple effort ate up much of his time at the outset—“The Twitter was the most exhausting part”—but four months’ experience has quickened his pace and won him a following.

“I try to Tweet things that are at some level meaningful,” he said, as though to apologize for the time invested. On August 28, the morning we spoke, he had appealed to math buffs by Tweeting the fact that 28 is a perfect number (the sum of its divisors).

The blog allows him more room for expressing bigger thoughts, but brevity remains an important constraint there, too. When a theme for a post overflows what Livio considers an ideal word-count, he abandons it. Fortunately, he is still writing books that can sustain a full-length rumination. His latest, Brilliant Blunders, due out next spring, explores how specific blunders committed by Lord Kelvin, Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Sir Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein led to those thinkers’ later breakthroughs.

New blog posts, which tend to appear on Tuesdays, naturally invite comments. A sample of posted responses suggests that Livio is not only educating a broad public, but also engaging a thoughtful elite.

The juxtaposition of fine art and space imagery—comparing and contrasting Joan Miró’s “The Birth of the World,” say, with a portion of the Hubble Deep Field—enables Livio to portray science as an aspect of culture.

“It is said that scientists strive to explain the universe and artists try to feel it. But these two things are not contradictory. They’re complementary. That’s why I try to put them together in the blog.”

Readers of this Newsletter hardly need to be reminded of the low level of science literacy that prevails in America today, or the poor grasp most people have for the process of science. Livio’s great contribution is to approach this gulf without rancor, but rather a genuine sense of sharing, spread across a variety of media.

“You may wonder what a picture of a practicing astronomer of today might look like,” he suggests toward the end of his post about Vermeer’s seventeenth-century astronomer. “First, it would most likely be a photo taken with a smartphone! Second, it would probably show a person sitting in front of a computer screen. The tools of the trade and the nature of the problems may have changed, but the contemplation and the striving for understanding remain the same.”

Science writer Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, The Planets, and, most recently, A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.