Physi­cist’s mus­ings a uni­ver­sal de­light

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Paul Klassen

THERE are those who might have ex­pected that a book con­tain­ing within its pages the an­swer to life, the uni­verse, and ev­ery­thing would be a lit­tle bit big­ger than Alan Lightman’s am­bi­tious The Ac­ci­den­tal Uni­verse. Then again, this short, whim­si­cal collection of fun es­says doesn’t re­ally pro­vide any ul­ti­mate an­swers — rather, it’s a light-hearted in­tro­duc­tion to the unan­swered mys­ter­ies and con­tra­dic­tions that ex­ist at the edge of mod­ern sci­ence, and the way we hu­mans re­late to our uni­verse. As both a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist and a nov­el­ist, Amer­i­can Dr. Alan Lightman is uniquely qual­i­fied to write this book. His most well-known fic­tional work is Ein­stein’s Dreams, which is about the ab­stract dreams of the young sci­en­tist as he de­vel­ops the the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity.

The ini­tial, in­sight­ful ti­tle es­say of this collection sets the tone for the rest of the book. Un­til re­cently, the feel­ing in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity was that physi­cists were ze­ro­ing in on a great “the­ory of ev­ery­thing” that would unite all the fun­da­men­tal forces, and then ev­ery­thing would fi­nally make sense. Thus far, those ef­forts to un­der­stand the uni­verse have in­stead shown it to be both big­ger and weirder than imag­ined. One ex­am­ple of this is the ap­par­ent “fine-tun­ing” in many of the phys­i­cal con­stants, such as the strength of the nu­clear force or the amount of dark en­ergy. If any of these con­stants were even a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent from their ac­tual val­ues, life and the uni­verse as we know it would not ex­ist. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any rea­son why they should all be in that con­ve­nient range. A par­tial so­lu­tion to this mys­tery is the an­thropic prin­ci­ple — that it is only in a uni­verse ca­pa­ble of sup­port­ing life that we would be here to won­der about it. Still, this doesn’t an­swer the ques­tion of why the uni­verse is the way it is. Be­sides the ob­vi­ous “we don’t know,” two pos­si­ble an­swers are the re­li­gious as­ser­tion that God de­signed it that way, and the “mul­ti­verse” the­ory that is gain­ing trac­tion in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. The mul­ti­verse is an in­fi­nite or near-in­fi­nite cos­mic land­scape of all the pos­si­ble uni­verses. Just as we find that life arose on Earth and not the rings of Saturn, life arose in our uni­verse and not in any of those other ones. The prob­lem is that there is as yet no con­ceiv­able way of ob­serv­ing these other uni­verses. Sci­en­tists are there­fore in the dis­turb­ing po­si­tion that, “to ex­plain what we see in the world, we must be­lieve in what we can­not prove.” Which sounds an aw­ful lot like re­li­gion. In fact, Lightman tack­les re­li­gion head-on on the third es­say, The Spir­i­tual Uni­verse. Al­though he is an athe­ist, he is sym­pa­thetic to be­liev­ers and the beau­ti­ful and no­ble works that their faith has in­spired, and he ad­mits that “there are in­ter­est­ing and vi­tal ques­tions be­yond the reach of test tubes and equa­tions.” Lightman’s thought­ful ap­proach to re­li­gion and sci­ence is rem­i­nis­cent of Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-over­lap­ping mag­is­te­ria” — in other words, in­tel­li­gent de­sign should stay out of sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion, but Richard Dawkins should lay off and let people be­lieve. Af­ter all, we are com­plex and ir­ra­tional in many other ways as well. The re­main­ing es­says me­an­der, tack­ling his daugh­ter’s wed­ding, the Taj Ma­hal, Fou­calt’s pen­du­lum, as well as ex­plor­ing five other as­pects of the uni­verse in chap­ters such as The Gar­gan­tuan Uni­verse, The Law­ful Uni­verse, and The Sym­met­ri­cal Uni­verse. In each es­say, Lightman de­scribes the uni­verse and the com­pli­cated, even schiz­o­phrenic ways we ex­pe­ri­ence it in an ac­ces­si­ble fash­ion. Hu­mans ex­hibit many con­tra­dic­tions: we find sym­me­try beau­ti­ful, but a touch of ir­reg­u­lar­ity makes it even bet­ter; we love pre­dictable laws, but also free­dom and spon­tane­ity. Con­sid­er­ing the uni­verse we were born in, we have a good ex­cuse for be­ing so com­plex and full of ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tions.

Paul Klassen is a Win­nipeg en­gi­neer.

The Ac­ci­den­tal

Uni­verse The World You Thought

You Knew By Alan Lightman Pan­theon Books, 157 pages, $27

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