In Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan wrote, “It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little about it.” It’s a quote that I’ve always loved because it so neatly ties together two modes of thinking that are usually held separate—the artistic and the scientific.
In my new book, The Sun Is Also a Star, we meet Natasha and Daniel. Natasha is a very pragmatic girl. She believes in science and things that you can measure and prove. Daniel, a budding poet, seems to be her opposite. He believes in intangible things like fate and God. He believes that proof is wildly overrated.
One of the ideas I wanted to explore with this book was this idea that the scientific and the artistic are opposites. We make this claim all the time. If you’re good at math, then you can’t be good at writing. If you’re good at physics, then you can’t be good at painting. You are either right-brained or left-brained. But what if this is not true? I think most of us are reasonably good at using both sides of our brain. And yet we’re forced to specialize as early as middle school. We put ourselves—and each other—into boxes.
But what if we didn’t? What if we let ourselves be both? Would we see each other differently? Would we understand the world in new and more expansive ways? Back to that Carl Sagan quote: It’s possible to think a sunset is beautiful purely because of the colors. The way it can look as if someone painted wild streaks of red and gold and sometimes even a hint of green across the sky. The way cloud edges seem almost to be on fire. Is it any less beautiful to know the colors are caused by the scattering of wavelengths that occurs when sunlight strikes molecules (primarily nitrogen and oxygen) in the atmosphere? At sunset, sunlight travels a longer path through the atmosphere, scattering the short-wavelength blues and leaving us with the oranges and the reds.
Is it any less beautiful to know that, because of the way light enters each individual eye, you are seeing a different sunset than I am?
Or that by the time you see the sun disappear, it has already set? What you’re actually seeing is refraction—light bending around the horizon. You’re seeing the evidence of something already past.
We’re drawn to sunsets because they are beautiful. When we come to know the science of it, the beauty deepens even further. If the goal of the human project is the search for truth and meaning, then the scientists and the artists aren’t so far apart after all. It’s just the approach that’s different.
Author photo credit Sonya Sones.