What is our place in the universe?
That, it seems to me, is the central question that occupies MIT physicist and humanist Alan Lightman in his delightful new collection of essays, “The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.”
Some of the other questions Lightman considers: Can we understand the universe from first principles? Are there a multitude of universes, each with different fundamental properties, some of which could not support even the formation of atoms let alone life? Are science and religion compatible? Why do we yearn for immortality?
Deep questions all. Yet Lightman, who holds appointments in both the physics and humanities departments at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, probes them with a deft, almost light, touch. As an accomplished theoretical physicist and a distinguished novelist, he straddles the two cultures comfortably. He is conversant with science, philosophy, and history, and he brings all of this knowledge to his examination of these deep, existential questions.
The seven essays that make up “The Accidental Universe” look at the universe—and our place in it—from seven different points of view. The first essay, also titled “The Accidental Universe,” for example, probes the philosophical implications of the “multiverse,” the notion that ours is only one of an almost infinite number of alternative universes.
“The history of science can, in fact, be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once accepted as ‘givens’ as phenomena that can now be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles,” Lightman writes, and provides numerous examples of such phenomena.
“This appealing and long trend in the history of science may be coming to an end,” he continues. “Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes, with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are mere accidents—random throws of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining these features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.”
Well, so what? “If the multiverse idea is correct,” Lightman writes, “then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our 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.”
Lightman proceeds, in a few pages, to show what a conundrum the multiverse poses for scientists who are almost forced to take the existence of our universe on faith.
The third essay, “The Spiritual Universe,” which I think is the strongest in the collection, looks at the relationship between science and religion. As he does throughout the book, Lightman makes this exploration deeply personal, using the evolution of his own thinking about science and religion as the backdrop against which he delves into the subject.
He starts out by stating what he calls the “central doctrine of science,” which is that “all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.” He proceeds to expound “a working definition of God,” admitting that he wouldn’t pretend to know the nature of God. That said, “I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe.”
“Starting with these axioms,” Lightman continues, “we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun.” He then defines categories of religious belief—atheism, deism, immanentism, and interventionism—and launches into an insightful discussion of how various scientists approach religious belief.
As he declares in this essay, Lightman is an atheist, but he is a deeply spiritual atheist who understands that “there are things we take on faith, without any physical proof and sometimes without any methodology for proof.” Scientists, he points out, address questions that have clear and definite answers. “But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature.”
In other essays, Lightman addresses the scale of the universe, the pervasive symmetry of the universe, and the regularity—or lawfulness—of the universe. All of these discussions are insightful and thought provoking, informed by references to historical events and well-chosen quotes from prominent scientists and philosophers.
The perspective in this slim volume is often personal—you feel like you have in some sense met the man who is Alan Lightman when you have finished it. Lightman is a very comfortable companion to have on this amble around this endlessly fascinating universe in which we exist.
Rudy Baum is C&EN acting editor-in-chief.