The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

by Alan Lightman

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Overview

With passion and curiosity, Alan Lightman explores the emotional and philosophical questions raised by recent discoveries in science. He looks at the dialogue between science and religion; the conflict between our human desire for permanence and the impermanence of nature; the possibility that our universe is simply an accident; the manner in which modern technology has separated us from direct experience of the world; and our resistance to the view that our bodies and minds can be explained by scientific logic and laws.

Behind all of these considerations is the suggestion--at once haunting and exhilarating--that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the extraordinary, perhaps unfathomable whole. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345805959
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 275,333
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is also the author of two collections of essays and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a writer, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.

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Preface

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.

Table of Contents

The Accidental Universe
The Temporary Universe
The Spiritual Universe
The Symmetrical Universe
The Gargantuan Universe
The Lawful Universe
The Disembodied Universe 

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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this would be more about cosmology rather than Alan's personal philosophy. Still an interesting read but don't expect a lot of cosmological details.
GT-Colorado More than 1 year ago
I would agree with the last reviewers comments. I enjoyed the book which adds to my knowledge, because I have read other books on this subject. I would have liked to have gotten more on the relationship between the universe and the spiritual world. The question in my mind is why are we here and how did we get here. The thought that we came about from a pool of elements and amino acids and through the process of evolution we developed into a complex organism that we are is a challenge to believe given the complexity of nature.