The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

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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...

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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

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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. 

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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.

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.” 

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.)
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345805959
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 63,769
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including the international bestseller 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


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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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • 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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  • Posted December 26, 2014

    I would agree with the last reviewers comments. I enjoyed the bo

    I would agree with the last reviewers comments. I enjoyed the book which adds to my knowledge, because I have read other books on this subject. I would have liked to have gotten more on the relationship between the universe and the spiritual world. The question in my mind is why are we here and how did we get here. The thought that we came about from a pool of elements and amino acids and through the process of evolution we developed into a complex organism that we are is a challenge to believe given the complexity of nature.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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