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Physicist's musings a universal delight

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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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 A1


Updated on Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 8:09 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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