The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew: Library Edition (Anglais) CD – Livre audio, CD
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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.
Revue de presse
"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.”
“Elegantly provocative. . . . Lightman celebrates our grand quest for knowledge and takes measure of the challenges our discoveries deliver.”
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Lightman is a self-confessed atheist although reading his thoughts in this book, one might be forgiven for thinking him to be a Buddhist. He certainly does not believe in the existence of any gods, and he does not believe in any life after death. He believes that we, like every living thing, grows in the time available to us in the space we are in, and gradually, we wither and are gone - like everything else that once lived but are now dead - the one billion people who were alive in the year 1800, for example.
Lightman agrees with the views of Richard Dawkins so far as biology, evolution and atheism are concerned. But he dislikes Dawkins' attitude. Lightman is amenable to people who wish to believe in a personal god or gods. He believes that the scientific people (not science) can live with religious people (not religion). He clearly does not think that science and religion are compatible, but scientists and religious people can be.
It seems, therefore, such a brilliant piece of work will probably attract criticism from Dawkins and extremist religious people.
It is with passages like this that Alan Lightman won me over. Not only in his direct, clear prose, but with his deep respect for both faith and science. I suppose it's more than respect--his argument is that reason and awe coexist in us....that we contain (and even court) the dual impulses of chaos and order, "the predictable and the unpredictable, the rational and the irrational, regularity and irregularity."
And never did his explanation of science, math or the workings of the universe confound. Rather, he framed string theory, dark matter, atomic science in human terms. The accidental universe need not be scary or intimidating. Rather, Lightman suggests, "Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration?"
As these linked essays show, the universe can be conceived as alternately or respectively accidental, temporary, spiritual, symmetrical, gargantuan, lawful, or disembodied. He applies his life's moments gently to enrich his lessons. I like reading books for popular audiences about cosmology, so I found Alan Lightman's style (in an advanced copy for review) engaging and accessible. He brings in his daughter's wedding on the Maine coast, his beloved pair of wingtip shoes, the amazing hexagonal symmetry of a honeycomb, or the disturbing harbinger of a world where our young appear to be wired, shut off from conversation, and online all the time. However, as his last chapter predicts, even those who try to flee the virtual realm as it takes over our physical and spiritual worlds may find themselves shut off from yet another universe now evolving.
Provocatively, Lightman compares how insignificant we are, stuck in a minor galaxy on a middling planet in a marginal status, yet we have figured out so much about the universe that surrounds us, if not the next stage, which we may never be able to discern to our satisfaction, that of multiverses. He tells us that our little worlds on a similarly infinitesimal level may elude our grasp. He imagines us as captains of a ship, up on a bridge, unable to discern fully from our perch what tumult lies below deck.
This sort of deft analogy, modest and never drawing too much attention to itself, characterizes Lightman's approach. Unlike some of his colleagues who write such essays, he keeps the math to a minimum while accentuating the verbal and visual images that he hones to remind us of the sheer amount we know now about our origins, back to the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. But, as we cannot penetrate that first moment of the Big Bang, that too stands to teach us of our own small stature, and how much the universe, big or small in these essays, continues to keep from our eager investigation. All the same, people such as Lightman inspire us to keep asking why.
I am left with a clear and honest sense of the universe and how it is changing. I am also thinking about how a sense of spirituality can coexist with the science. The issues and questions of our times are kindly laid out for the reader to consider, without strong advocacy for any point of view. For me, this book was a page-turner.
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