The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

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by Alan Lightman
     
 

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In The Accidental Universe, physicist and novelist Alan Lightman explores the emotional and philosophical questions raised by discoveries in science, focusing most intently on the human condition and the needs of humankind.

Here, in a collection of exhilarating essays, Lightman shows us our own universe from a series of fascinating and diverse

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Overview

In The Accidental Universe, physicist and novelist Alan Lightman explores the emotional and philosophical questions raised by discoveries in science, focusing most intently on the human condition and the needs of humankind.

Here, in a collection of exhilarating essays, Lightman shows us our own universe from a series of fascinating and diverse perspectives. He takes on the difficult 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 divorced us from enjoying a direct experience of the world; and our resistance to the view that our bodies and minds can be explained by scientific logic and laws alone.

With his customary passion, precision, lyricism and imagination, in The Accidental Universe Alan Lightman leaves us with the suggestion - heady and humbling - that what we see and understand of the world and ourselves is only a tiny piece of the extraordinary, perhaps unfathomable whole.

Praise for Alan Lightman:

'...a gem of a novel that is strange witty erudite and alive with Lightman's playful genius.' Junot Diaz.

'It would not seem possible for Alan Lightman to match his earlier tour de force, Einstein's Dreams, but in Mr g he has done so - with wit, imagination, and transcendent beauty.' Anita Desai.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Lightman is that rare and wonderful creature: a theoretical physicist who has taught at Harvard and MIT and also written six novels, including the international best seller Einstein's Dreams. Here he considers the very human questions raised by recent scientific discoveries. Chapters of this book have appeared in venues like Harper's ("The Gargantuan Universe" as a cover story), and "The Accidental Universe" was chosen for Best American Essays 2012. So demand among smart readers should be high.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/30/2013
In his brief but engrossing latest essay collection, theoretical physicist and novelist Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams) offers insight into the ways that recent scientific discoveries shape our understanding of ourselves and our world. Each of the seven essays here explores the philosophical fallout from a particular corner of research. The titular lead essay examines the concept of the multiverse, and the potential implications of its existence, in light of the dark energy that keeps our universe from collapsing. “The Spiritual Universe” examines the often uneasy relationship between science and religion, while other pieces explore entropy, the vast scale of space, and unpredictable humanity’s role in a universe built on physical laws and composed of forces, light, and particles we can’t see. 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. Agent: Jane Gelfman, Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents Inc. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"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.” 
     —Shelf Awareness

“Elegantly provocative. . . . Lightman celebrates our grand quest for knowledge and takes measure of the challenges our discoveries deliver.” 
     —Booklist

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-28
Lightman (Science and the Humanities/MIT; Mr. g, 2012, etc.) explores how our perception of the visible world is shaped by the invisible world, which we do not directly perceive. As both a novelist and an astrophysicist, the author bridges the cultural divide made famous by C.P. Snow in his iconic 1959 Cambridge lecture, "The Two Cultures." Lightman contrasts lectures he gave when he first joined the MIT faculty: In the morning, he taught physics classes about a world "described to high accuracy by equations." In his afternoon classes for would-be writers, he emphasized that good fiction deals with the unpredictability of human behavior. The author dismisses arguments for intelligent design that seek justification in the apparent fine-tuning of certain fundamental parameters in physics necessary for the existence of life (e.g., the speed of light). Citing the multi-universe hypothesis, he suggests that our universe was not specially designed for us. "From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life," he writes. If this weren't the case, "we wouldn't be here to ponder the question." Lightman tells us that he is an atheist. He endorses "the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws," and he rejects the notion of "a Being who lives beyond matter and energy." Nonetheless, he stakes out a middle ground between evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and devoutly religious geneticist Francis Collins, and he explains his belief "that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations." He suggests that the mysteries of quantum physics (e.g., the particle/wave duality) become more explainable when we consider the increasing disembodiment of our social world, where virtual reality has become commonplace. A scientific and philosophical gem.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307908599
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/14/2014
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
176
Sales rank:
116,702
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Preface

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.

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