With passion and curiosity, Alan Lightman explores the emotional and philosophical questions raised by recent discoveries in science. He looks at the dialogue between science and religion; the conflict between our human desire for permanence and the impermanence of nature; the possibility that our universe is simply an accident; the manner in which modern technology has separated us from direct experience of the world; and our resistance to the view that our bodies and minds can be explained by scientific logic and laws.
Behind all of these considerations is the suggestion--at once haunting and exhilarating--that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the extraordinary, perhaps unfathomable whole.
In October 2012, I attended a lecture given by the Dalai Lama in a cavernous auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even without words, the moment would have been profound: one of the world’s spiritual leaders sitting cross-legged in a modern temple of science. Among other things, the Dalai Lama spoke about śūnyatā, translated as “emptiness,” a central concept in Tibetan Buddhism. According to this doctrine, objects in the physical universe are empty of inherent and independent existence—all meaning attached to them originates in constructions and thoughts in our minds. As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “It [the mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.
Modern science has certainly revealed a hidden cosmos not visible to our senses. For example, we now know that the universe is awash in “colors” of light that cannot be seen with the eye: radio waves and X-rays and more. When the first X-ray telescopes pointed skyward in the early 1970s, we were astonished to discover a whole zoo of astronomical objects previously invisible and unknown. We now know that time is not absolute, that the ticking rate of clocks varies with their relative speed. Such incongruities in the passage of time are unnoticeable to us at the ordinary speeds of our lives but have been confirmed by sensitive instruments. We now know that the instructions for making a human being, or any form of life, are encoded in a helix-shaped molecule found in each microscopic cell of our bodies. Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.
The word “universe” comes from the Latin unus, meaning “one,” combined with versus, which is the past participle of vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus the original and literal meaning of “universe” was “everything turned into one.” In the last couple of centuries, the word has been taken to mean the totality of physical reality. In my first essay, “The Accidental Universe,” I discuss the possibility that there may exist multiple universes, multiple space-time continuums, some with more than three dimensions. But even if there is only a single space-time continuum, a single “universe,” I would argue that there are many universes within our one universe, some visible and some not. Certainly there are many different vantage points. These essays explore some of the views, both the known and the unknown.
Excerpted from The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman. Copyright © 2014 by Alan Lightman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is also the author of two collections of essays and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a writer, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.
"Alan Lightman might be the only writer who can dance through not just one but seven universes in a book not much larger than a human hand.”
—The Columbus Dispatch
"Engaging. . . . While this lively, lyrical book examines some of the major scientific thinking of our time, it also celebrates the human drive to make sense of it all."
—Portland Press Herald
"Any reader will enjoy pondering, through well-organized and graceful prose, what can be objectively proven about the world in which we live and what remains a mystery."
—The Boston Globe
"Lightman has an appealing humility and affection for the mysterious, and an even more attractive compassion for humans, with their short lives and big questions."
--The Columbus Dispatch
“Lightman is one of the few physicists who can name-check the Dalai Lama, astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Dostoevsky, and dark energy in the same work, while deftly guiding readers through discussions of modern physics and philosophy. Here he has composed a thoughtful, straightforward collection of essays that invite readers to think deeply about the world around them.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Alan Lightman . . . has written not so much about cosmology as his title might imply but about our direct, subjective experience with it . . . . We are not observers on the outside looking in. We are on the inside too.”
—New York Journal of Books
“This MIT physicist-turned-bestselling author is one of the nation’s top science writers, exploring the intersection of science and culture. That he used to teach physics in the morning, and creative writing in the afternoon is all the recommendation you need. . . . Lightman [is] an able and charming tour guide. . . . The Accidental Universe portrays a physicist who not only observes his environment, but interacts with it, as well.”
—Portland Press Herald
“As he’s demonstrated in highly original novels like Einstein’s Dreams and Mr g, Alan Lightman possesses the mind of a theoretical physicist and the soul of an artist. . . . He offers intriguing glimpses of how the gulf we too often perceive between science and the rest of life might be bridged.”
“Elegantly provocative. . . . Lightman celebrates our grand quest for knowledge and takes measure of the challenges our discoveries deliver.”