The author of The Accidental Universe, a wide-ranging collection of essays on cosmology, astrophysics, quantum physics, etc., Alan Lightman, is both a theoretical physicist and a successful writer – a seemingly unusual (and unfair!) combination of talents. According to his author bio, Alan Lightman is currently on the faculty at MIT, and was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities there.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is science writing at its best. The scientific knowledge being conveyed is important and far-reaching (going well beyond this one particular universe we happen to live in); gets explained in a highly readable style – not overly simplified but not too difficult for the general reader.
If you haven’t been keeping up with what theories are currently broadly held to be true among astrophysicists, cosmologists, quantum theorists, and other theoretical-physics-type people, but are curious about things like dark energy, the multiverse, the outer limits of scientific knowledge, and what all this means in the terms of human existence and what we believe, then this is the book for you. Audiobook narrator Bronson Pinchot presents the author’s ideas in a calmly rational voice – making you question what you thought was true about the universe and generally shaking up your entire belief system, while somehow soothing you about it at the same time. (Don’t worry, the eventual expansion of the universe past the point of no return won’t happen for eons.)
Remember what happened to Pluto, demoted from the solar system? Now it seems there’s actually no single, all-encompassing universe either; for scientists who don’t believe in God or in intelligent design, the only explanation for the behavior of the universe, is that it isn’t a universe at all, but a multiverse. The first essay in the book is called “The Accidental Universe,” and it was first published in Harper’s Magazine in December 2011. You can read it online here. Here’s a short excerpt from it:
The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.
This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. 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 indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.
The author uses everyday examples such as the idea of going into a shoe store and discovering that a size 6 fits you, but also size 4, and size 12, etc. to explain complex scientific theories. He occasionally uses moments from his own life as jumping-off points, such as walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding or walking in a nature preserve and observing that so many people talk on cell phones instead of communing with nature. He also discusses spiritual and religious points of view respectfully, not dismissively – acknowledging that when it comes to theories about the universe (or multiverse) scientists may never be able to prove them definitively one way or the other. The author’s beliefs reside firmly in science and in scientific knowledge but, at a certain level, they are still unproven beliefs.
I did go back over a few especially complex sections to listen to them again, but I’m proof that even with just a smattering of general scientific knowledge, you can still get a lot out of this book. (I have listened and enjoyed a few books by Richard Feynman – also a theoretical physicist/humanist – and read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, as well as some type of “physics for poets” book at some point, but not much else.)
If you like reading about the intersection of science and the humanities, you should dip into this book of essays, or if you (like me) recently read The Humans – a novel by Matt Haig about an alien who comes to earth and takes on the persona of a university professor – you might like reading more about the factual astrophysics behind that fictional story.
Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook here.
The Accidental Universe
Lightman, Alan (author)
Pinchot, Bronson (narrator)
Jan. 14, 2014
3.9 hours, unabridged
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook as an MP3 download through Audiobook Jukebox.
Other opinions on The Accidental Universe: