The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Accidental UniverseMy first encounter with Alan Lightman was through his 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams, a fictional account of the scientist during the period he was working on the theory of relativity in 1905 and what he may have dreamed.  I remember it was definitely quirky, but rather beautifully written. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was written by a physicist.

These days, Lightman is the first joint professor of science and the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’s always written creatively, and alongside his handful of other novels, he’s published several collections of scientific essays augmenting his research papers.

The Accidental Universe is his latest set of seven essays, each taking a different perspective on current thinking about the origins of the universe, illustrated with his own thoughts on life, the universe and everything.

In the title essay, he explains that according to the multiverse theory, if there are infinite numbers of universes, all differing in their properties, then there is bound to be a small fraction that permits life to emerge. “We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ponder the question.”  It’s a happy accident for us.

It’s very convenient, but also poses problems because if the multiverse idea is the right one:

…then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of the universe in terms of fundamental principles – to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are – is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is simply because we are here.

One of the most interesting essays to me was the one with the least physics in it! In ‘The Spiritual Universe’, Lightman compares and contrasts science and religion.  He lays his cards upon the table: he is an atheist, but, he says:

I am impatient with people who, like Richard Dawkins, try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature.

Lightman is quite an enlightened scientist, although some may take issue with him on his insights. He does however understand the sense of wonder that is shared by both scientists and those of faith.  He has had his own transcendent experiences. He and his wife had observed, from close quarters, two osprey chicks from eggs to fledglings, and the birds were making their maiden flight:

When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I do not understand what happened in that half second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

Throughout the book, I particularly liked the way he applied his own experiences to these big questions.  He talks about his favourite shoes wearing out when talking about entropy and times arrow; his daughter’s wedding too – a father’s joy and dismay that his perfect little girl was now thirty. When discussing symmetry, he marvels at how bees make honeycomb in the perfect hexagonal structure that uses the least energy and material to make without wasting space.  I loved the way that his physics is invaded by nature all the time.

In ‘The Disembodied Universe’ he goes from describing how in 1851 Foucault proved that the earth spins on its axis with his pendulum – you can’t actually see the earth spin (unless you’re in space) but you can see the pendulum swing which is in a constant plane turning relative to the floor i.e. the Earth.  He goes on to worry about the other ways in which we become disembodied further – out to dinner with his daughter and her friends, the young women all kept their phones on the table ‘like miniature oxygen tanks carried everywhere by emphysema patients’.

The book is virtually, but not quite, equation-less, there’s very little maths for those who are allergic to it. He is a great communicator, being able to explain complex concepts with lucid analogies involving marbles rolling in dents on table-tops before falling off and reaching lower energy states, shuffling cards and the like.

Straddling the schools of science and humanities as he does, with his lightness of style and wonder at the scope of the universe with all its quirks, Lightman is the ideal guide for interested non-scientists, but even those in the field will be prompted to ask more questions after reading his essays.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors and, although a materials scientist by training, her picture of the universe tends to resemble Monty Python’s Galaxy Song!

Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe, (Constable, London, 2014) 978-1472109187 hardback, 176 pages.

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