The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew [NOOK Book]

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 ...

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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

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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

From Barnes & Noble

In his novel Einstein's Dream, theoretical physicist Alan Lightman took us inside the thought-provoking pillow meanderings of a great thinker. In the equally stimulating essay collection The Accidental Universe, he guides us through what recent scientific research tells us about topics ranging from the vast size of our cosmological abode to the reasons why our universe doesn't collapse. One of those books that stays with you for years.

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
“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)

“Theoretical physicist and novelist Lightman presents seven elegantly provocative ‘universe’ essays that elucidate complex scientific thought in the context of everyday experiences and concerns. . . . Ranging from ancient intuitions and calculations to today’s high-tech inquiries, Lightman celebrates our grand quest for knowledge and takes measures of the challenges our discoveries deliver.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Regardless of outstanding interests in science or religion, 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.” —Emily Rapp, Boston Globe

“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. . . . Above all, 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.” —Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch

“All of the essays in this collection are rewarding, but the most intriguing for popular science lovers will be the first, which gives the book its title.” —Laura Miller, Salon

“Humanity’s resistance to change is a recurrent theme in The Accidental Universe. We accept that the universe is in a state of decay but yet, we deny our mortality. As an atheist, Lightman denies the consolation of religion yet bravely confesses that he too cannot accept his death, inevitable though it may be. Life, Lightman offers, may be more precious and beautiful because of its fleeting nature—not in spite of it. Science and religion both share a sense of wonder, Lightman observes, and it is this sense of wonder that can sustain us in a universe both beautiful and strange.” —Matt Staggs, Everyday eBook
 
“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. . . . While Lightman hopes ‘there will always be an edge between the known and the unknown,’ he offers intriguing glimpses of how the gulf we too often perceive between science and the rest of life might be bridged.” —Shelf Awareness

“Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman—who also in this book shows himself to be a gifted essayist—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

“In The Accidental Universe, Alan Lightman tackles big questions of life and death, morality and human consciousness—in a universe that may be far bigger and much stranger than we thought.  It’s a universe that also may be fundamentally unknowable, as if God is making other universes where we can't see them and will never know them. There is no writer quite like Alan Lightman, and his calm, humane, and always intelligent voice guides us along strange paths into nature and our human selves.” —Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone
 
“Science is changing the way we think, especially about ourselves. As a guide to the multiple identities that science now offers, you'll want this beautiful book—poetic, humanistic, personal, inspiring. As a physicist, novelist, observer of coastal birds and the stars, Alan Lightman covers a lot of ground. Among so many other things, Lightman asks his reader to consider immortality, multiple universes, the possibility of a cyborg world and those who might resist its seductions. I couldn't put it down; a thrilling read.” —Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT, and author of Alone Together
 
“A Walden for our digital, cosmological, and quantum age from a modern-day Thoreau. Not since Fred Hoyle in another era (and universe) has anyone dared to cover such a sweeping domain, and no one so elegantly, so parsimoniously, and so personally.” —Jon Kabat Zinn, professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts, author of Full Catastrophe Living 
 
“Alan Lightman is one of the all-too-few scientists whose writings achieve genuine literary quality. Anyone, with or without a scientific background, will be stimulated and inspired by these essays.” —Martin Rees, Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, Cambridge University, and Astronomer Royal of England, author of Our Final Hour
 
“Alan Lightman brings a light touch to heavy questions. Here is a book about nesting ospreys, multiple universes, atheism, spiritualism, and the arrow of time. Throughout, Lightman takes us back and forth between ordinary occurrences—old shoes and entropy, sailing far out at sea and the infinite expanse of space. In this slight volume, Lightman looks toward the universe, and captures aspects of it in a series of beautifully written essays, each offering a glimpse at the whole from a different perspective: here time, there symmetry, not least God. It is a meditation by a remarkable humanist-physicist, a book worth reading by anyone entranced by big ideas grounded in the physical world.” —Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University

“Lightman is that rare and wonderful creature: a theoretical physicist who has taught at Harvard and MIT and also written six novels . . . so demand among smart readers should be high.” —Library Journal

“All of the essays in The Accidental Universe are carefully argued, and there is not a shrill or dogmatic line in any of them. They’re enlivened by Lightman’s precise, graceful prose and a novelist’s skill for conjuring scenes and characters. . . . Readers will almost certainly come away with more questions than conclusions, as well as with a fresh curiosity about theoretical physics. No doubt that’s just what Lightman would hope for.” —Maria Browning, Chapter 16

“Is our universe merely a statistical fluke, a rare accident that we happen to be able to observe? In The Accidental Universe, Alan Lightman introduces readers to physicists' latest grapplings with the vastness of space, the ineluctable march of time, and the origin of mass. Vivid, personal, and often moving, Lightman's reflections illuminate scientists' zeal for lawfulness, symmetry, and order, as well as their arresting sense of wonder.” —David Kaiser, author of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival

“Alan Lightman is not only a graceful writer, he is a juggler of scales and perspectives, an informed questioner who works his way in deeper with each exertion. The Accidental Universe disassembles our theoretical surround, cleans and tests all arguments and assumptions, and then, dexterously, puts it all back together. Voila! A book born of stimulating discussions, it will now provoke them.” —Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

“This essay collection could have only been penned by Lightman, that rare hybrid of physicist and storyteller. By shining the beam of his intellect on the cosmos, he illuminates our personal lives in the reflections.” —David Eagleman, Neuroscientist, author of Sum and Incognito

“A sublime reminder of the mysteries behind and beyond the familiar—a call to wonder.” —Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human

“Alan Lightman deftly weaves the contradictions and mystery of our experience with the awe of exploring the vast physical universe. His graceful book inspires conversation about the wonder of our existence. It invites us to look up at the sky and see a grander, more comprehensible universe.” —Margaret Geller, Professor of Astronomy, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship

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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." Richard Feynman said that fifty years ago, during a lecture at MIT. How much more inviting can you get? You are about to tell an audience that their senses just aren't up to speed, that the world they see is a far cry from the real story — so playfulness comes in handy. Einstein knew that, as did M. C. Escher, and so does Alan Lightman. Lightman, as witnessed in The Accidental Universe, is a rare bird: a limpid popularizer of theoretical physics who is comfortable with mystery; someone who can sew the known, the conjectured, and the unknown together like the master needleworker at a cosmological bee.

The seven essays here are of a piece — all deal with some aspect of the universe: symmetry, size, laws, spirit, accident — though they can stand alone and be read in the order of interest. The material, for all its wondrousness, spins and bounces merrily along on the surface, with the occasional dive into deeper waters. The subjects orbit about recent(ish) perturbations in the field of theoretical physics, with digressions. What has physicists' underwear most in a twist, writes Lightman, is a new player at the table known as the "multiverse." The notion of the multiverse suggests that there is not just one universe, guided by the Platonic dream of a few principles of symmetry, mathematical truths, and a handful of parameters calling the shots. No, there are many universes, with wildly varying properties generated by the same fundamental principles — some with life, some without, some with seventeen dimensions, some with stars, some finite, some infinite. Thus the laws of nature that govern the behavior of matter and energy, once thought restrictive to a self-consistent universe, are more promiscuous than we imagined.

By now, "eternal inflation" and "string theory" — yes, you have heard of them, but it takes a long while before a theory is welcome in the club — have acquired enough stature to give those Fruit of the Looms a good few twists and a wedgie. "Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe. According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living" — heaven help us here — "in a universe uncalculable by science." At this point, Lightman is just getting under steam. One of the things a multiverse administers is a sharp stick in the eye to the Intelligent Designers. What ostensibly galls them is the very unlikeliness of life in that self-consistent universe, considering the knife edge of improbability for all the complexities of life to line up just so and just for us. Mustn't there have been a guiding hand, a hand that may still be guiding? "That doesn't matter," writes Lightman. "We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn't be here to ponder the question" (though H. Allen Orr made the case for evolutionary biology in a self-consistent universe in The New Yorker). On the other hand, writes Lightman, as long as god stays on the sidelines and doesn't monkey about with the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe, science can't prove diddly. "Belief is a matter of faith," and those who cut the transcendental impulse short are only cheating themselves.

The chapter on the symmetrical universe sails easefully and economically between the wakes of science and poetry. There are those, and they are not a handful, who believe that the principles of symmetry dictate the existence of all known forces of nature. Symmetries are everywhere, and most of us find them dazzling: the golden section, an iris, the rings of Saturn, an apple's seeds, the sectors of a jellyfish. If when Lightman introduces the electroweak force things get slippery — "That is, you can exchange some of these particles with the others, and the fundamental forces act in the same way...The only problem with Weinberg and Salam's proposal is that we know that photons and Ws and Zs are not identical" — nonetheless, this is where we get to meet the Higgs boson, and really, who doesn't think the Higgs boson, name alone, isn't cool? Even better, you leave the chapter with a glimmer of how Higgs boson energy contributes to symmetry and mass. Not a close friend yet, Higgs, but an acquaintance.

Lightman never leaves the mysteries for too long and shares our enjoyment of the strange and singular, surprises and peculiarities. He feels like David Hume: the unruly attractions out there give us "an agreeable emotion." And though he laments our mediated world of the iPhone, he is quick to acknowledge that nowadays our increasing understanding of nature comes not from sensory experience but from instruments and calculations. Still, they feed our hunger for wonders and oddities, knowing there are colors we have not experienced, the glow of a desert we can't make out, all the trillions of things flying about, sometimes existing in two places at once — or nowhere — that pass us by, ships in the night without running lights.

"The architecture of our brains was born from the same trial and error, the same energy principles, the same pure mathematics that happen in flowers and jellyfish and Higgs particles.... It is nonsensical to ask why we find nature beautiful. Beauty and symmetry and minimum principles are not qualities we ascribe to the cosmos." No, "they are simply what is, just like the particular arrangement of atoms that make up our minds. We are not observers on the outside looking in. We are on the inside too."

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908599
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 82,243
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

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.

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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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Table of Contents

The Accidental Universe
The Temporary Universe
The Spiritual Universe
The Symmetrical Universe
The Gargantuan Universe
The Lawful Universe
The Disembodied Universe 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2014

    Philosophical not cosmological

    I thought this would be more about cosmology rather than Alan's personal philosophy. Still an interesting read but don't expect a lot of cosmological details.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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