February 2014

James Orbesen


The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman, professor at MIT and author of numerous novels and texts, lives a double life. An instructor and writer, he lives in two, often conflicting, worlds. A typical start to a day at work: "I talked to my students about a world of pure logic, pure reason, pure cause and effect. It was a world in which... the future was completely determined by the past and the inexorable churning of the laws of nature..."

Set change: "In the afternoons, I would walk across the courtyard to the humanities building and talk to my students about the messy nature of human affairs. The dimly lit alleys of the mind. Greed, jealousy, love thwarted, happiness, revenge, complex and ambiguous motives for action... Real people are unpredictable, I said."

Lightman holds a double appointment in physics and the humanities at MIT. This is a rare combination (Lightman is, in fact, the first) and seems a bit schizophrenic when one has to work one moment in the world of hard facts and figures, of the natural world around us, and then teach "the messy nature of human affairs," the next.

But, in Lightman's latest book, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, he tries to make sense of how it is not only possible to coexist in these two spheres, but perhaps essential to our understanding of our universe and ourselves.

Comprised of a number of essays, The Accidental Universe documents recent discoveries about our universe, the quest for a complete Standard Model of physics to explain, literally, everything, and the recently uncovered Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" that grants subatomic particles their mass. This is balanced by Lightman's reflections on human nature, our mutual condition, and our place in a vast cosmos beyond our reach. This creates an interesting tension that runs throughout the collection, beginning right at the beginning in the titular essay.

Lightman starts with that: "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."

Science peels away layers that obscure the truth at the heart of our universe. However, after centuries of constant triumph, scientists have run into a brick wall. For every new discovery, new questions arise that science may not also be able to answer. After affirming what science has done, he pulls away the table cloth: "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 in a universe incalculable by science."

This is where the importance of Lightman's grounding in the humanities comes in. Science can explain what is. It is descriptive. Although the author is a theoretical physicist, he must speculate based off empirical observations, assured certainties. This doesn't exactly help when our universe might be nothing more than a few "random throws of the cosmic dice." Those messy bits that define what it means to be human are potential solutions to understanding the unexplainable.

Gifted with an ability to explain complex theories effortlessly, Lightman is also a fine stylist. The below passage, though melancholic, demonstrates his ability to fuse abstract scientific fact with concrete images. Look how he moves from the seemingly insignificant to the grandly cosmic.

In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within twenty-four hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land. Once, the continents were joined. Once the air was ammonia and methane. Now it is oxygen and nitrogen. In the future, it will be something else. The sun is depleting nuclear fuel.

These are observations of the natural world, work that has consumed scientists for centuries, but Lightman makes the point, as others have, that humans are inexorably a part of that world and that those same forces impact us: "And just look at our own bodies. In the middle years and beyond, skin sags and cracks. Eyesight fades. Hearing diminishes. Bones shrink and turn brittle."

Yet, there is something different about us. Unlike mayflies, drones, glaciers, and stars, we are aware of our mortality, able to reflect and ponder our existence, and make meaning of it all. Ice melts and is no worse off for it. A flame is snuffed and it is simply a transformation of energy. But when I blow out the birthday candles, I know what's coming and can make of it what I will.

Here is where the world of science meets human affairs. Lightman describes a colleague who studies distant galaxies, billions of light years away. These are places so far beyond the Earth that we will, almost certainly, never reach them. Not only is the distance unfathomable, but it is growing due to the influence of dark energy, a mysterious, currently unobservable substance that overcomes the attractive power of gravity.

Looking out at those far away shores, are those galaxies "part of the same landscape that Wordsworth and Thoreau described, part of the same visceral ethos as mountains and trees, part of the same cycle of birth and demise that orders our lives, part of our personal physical and emotional conception of the world that we live in?"

It's a beautiful observation and sits perfectly at that gray nexus where science and humanity meet. The obvious answer is, well, duh, those specks of red shifting light are part of the natural universe so, yes. But, and here is where it gets tricky, it doesn't feel like they're part and parcel of our experience.

What the hell are feelings doing in a book about science? Lightman makes it clear that the project of science is ultimately to be understood in human terms. We relate to science through our humanity. Even though we can build tools to see all the wavelengths of light, red is still red and violet is still violet in our eyes. Stars and nebula comprise our natural universe but there is a whole separate universe in the hearts and heads of humans.

This is that aforementioned tension Lightman introduced, the butting heads of the cosmic and the personal, the natural and the human. The juxtaposition is moving, well-wrought, and utterly engaging. A fine piece of praise might be that there are echoes of Carl Sagan in this book. One of his most moving insights is that humans are made of the very cosmos that we study. As he said it, we are "made of star stuff." By studying the universe, we come closer to understanding ourselves.

But Lightman riffs on this with the heart of a philosopher. The most provocative part of The Accidental Universe comes from a fellow physicist, Maria Spiropulu. Upon being interviewed about the recently discovered Higgs boson and the possibilities of being one step closer to having a theory for everything, she comments: "I personally do not want [the new particle] to be Standard Model anything -- I don't want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me and all of us in a good loop for a long time."

Lightman seconds her: "I believe that it is bracing and vital to live in a world in which we do not know all the answers."

That sounds strange coming from a scientist. But he's more than just that. He's a human, filled with questions he might not be able to fully answer. That's how it is, I feel, for all of us, filled with unanswerable questions about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.  And his book is more than just an exploration of the universe and its principles. It's a blueprint on how to build bridges between the universe and us.

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman
ISBN: 978-0307908582
157 pages