Among the many reasons I chose to pursue physics was the desire to do something that would have a permanent impact. If I was going to invest so much time, energy, and commitment, I wanted it to be for something with a claim to longevity and truth. Like most people, I thought of scientifc advances as ideas that stand the test of time.
My friend Anna Christina Büchmann studied English in college while I majored in physics. Ironically, she studied literature for the same reason that drew me to math and science. She loved the way an insightful story lasts for centuries. When discussing Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones with her many years later, I learned that the edition I had read and thoroughly enjoyed was the one she helped annotate when she was in graduate school.
Tom Jones was published 250 years ago, yet its themes and wit resonate to this day. During my first visit to Japan, I read the far older Tale of Genji and marveled at its characters’ immediacy too, despite the thousand years that have elapsed since Murasaki Shikibu wrote about them. Homer created the Odyssey roughly 2,000 years earlier. Yet notwithstanding its very different age and context, we continue to relish the tale of Odysseus’s journey and its timeless descriptions of human nature.
Scientists rarely read such old—let alone ancient—scientific texts. We usually leave that to historians and literary critics. We nonetheless apply the knowledge that has been acquired over time, whether from Newton in the seventeenth century or Copernicus more than 100 years earlier still. We might neglect the books themselves, but we are careful to preserve the important ideas they may contain.