Alan Lightman

The Accidental Universe

“Science is not the only avenue to arrive at knowledge.”

Alan Lightman (born November 28, 1948), MIT professor of humanities and physics, abides in a unique space.

Philosophically speaking, he occupies the intersection of complex science and inexplicable beauty. In The Accidental Universe, he writes: “Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of knowledge in science: the properties of physical things, and the laws that govern those physical things.” He also acknowledges “science is not the only avenue to arrive at knowledge.”

With that bright definition of knowledge, Lightman unpacks the universe and leaves it scattered in front of us, unanswered, unpuzzled, unsolved.

Alan Lightman - Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine
Vincent van Gogh’s Starry-Night 1889, painted the year before he died.

Aspects of The Accidental Universe include a) there are more universes than you think, b) there might be more time than we imagine, and c) thus, there might be more dimensions of space-time than we imagine. (Not that we can imagine any of this anyway.)

That uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and incalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence.

In addition, time won’t last forever, and what we consider eternity might not exist:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.

Alan Lightman is preoccupied with uncertainty and its mirror, permanence. Making sense of what we know, what we don’t know, and what that means about life and death. How it implies our connection to needless things.

Somewhere in our fathoming of the cosmos, we must keep a mental inventory of plan size and scale, going from atoms to microbes to us humans to oceans to planets to stars. And some of the most impressive additions to that inventory have occurred at the high end. Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. [… we] have had to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.

The universe is in flux, our knowledge of the universe is in flux, and, thus, our notions of humanity and self must be in flux.1

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Starry sky folding into dawn over Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

Then again, science isn’t the only way to arrive at knowledge (I make a case for the insight from emotions).  As Lightman reminds us repeatedly, some questions are deeper, broader, and simply unboundable by equations. For Lightman, it converges on religious beliefs and even a “working definition” of God.

We can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science.

Being in Lightman’s company, drawing scope of the universe, looking at stars in Maine, or dancing alongside his persona in his simple meditation on wasting time is an exceptional gift.

Galileo's drawing of Pleiades featured in "Sidereus Nuncius" in The Examined Life Library.
Galileo’s drawing of Pleiades, a cluster of stars about 450 light years away that was formed 100 million years ago. Pleiades was first observed by Galileo although it is usually visible to the naked eye. Read more in Galileo’s 1610 publication “Sidereus Nuncius.”

That Lightman and we exist at all… well, you’ll appreciate it so much more with this self-expanding and ego-diminishing book.

Pair this great unpacking of everything with the seminal work of Rachel Carson, an environmental biologist who approached the microbial level with wonder, the little simple cells that mean everything to life. And then steep your soul further in the discoveries of a young Charles Darwin, whose wonder at the undiscovered natural world match Lightman’s.

Alan Lightman