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Reading Dan Frank, Book Editor and ‘Champion of the Unexampled’

I met him through Alan Lightman, who had emailed me to say he was coming to New York to give a talk, and did I want to have dinner with him and two guests — his daughter and a man named Dan.

I instantly felt this, just, radiance, a kind of humble warmth but also a very lively mind. He was such a lovely human being, so subtle and generous, an embodiment of what a great editor does: gets out of the way, taking with him the rubble that writers put in their own path.

He was very interested in the intersection of the novelist and the scholarly. He understood uniquely how all history is a kind of narrative superimposed on reality — an invention and interpretation. Science is a human-driven search for truth. Not in a social-constructivist way; there is an elemental truth. But the search can fold in on itself, because we only have the tools of human consciousness to work with. Whatever the prostheses — telescopes, microscopes — it’s still a human mind that does the processing and analysis, that filters everything through its life, its loves, the Dans it lost, everything.

The history of science is ultimately the history of human experience. Dan saw that there was something there to look at that defies the robotic model of objectivity. There is an animating question common to all the books he did: “What is all this? What is all this?”

Alan Lightman is a physicist and writer at M.I.T. He has published a dozen books with Dan Frank, starting in 1986 with “A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court. and Other Essays on Science.”

In March 30, 1983, I got a letter from an editor I had never heard of, saying that if there was ever a book I wanted to write, I should get in touch: “I have been reading your column, The Physical Element, for over a year, and I am particularly impressed with the ease and grace with which you elucidate complex ideas.”

That was powerful encouragement. Before the internet, Dan would always send me a letter before anything else; not a phone call, but a letter. I kept that letter and all the letters I ever got from him.

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