One of my favorite writers is Alan Lightman, author of the novels, Einstein’s Dreams (Pantheon Books, 1993) and Good Benito (Pantheon Books, 1994), just two of the many books the MIT professor of physics and humanities has written. His current book of essays, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (Pantheon Books, 2013), is an absolutely splendid exploration of the multiverse of our existence. I have taught Lightman’s work for many years now, and I plan to add his latest as suggested reading for my upcoming class on science writing.
Lightman divides his book up into seven sections, each devoted to a version of the universe. He incorporates physics and quantum mechanics, and offers the best explanation of these difficult subjects that I’ve read. His writing is insightful and stunning here, and I found myself many times putting the book down after a particularly beautiful paragraph and contemplating the ideas he presents. It is that kind of book.
In the first section, “The Accidental Universe,” Lightman portrays theoretical physics as “the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy and religion.” This is the blending of humanities and science that Lightman lives every day at MIT, and he deftly links the two and explores the ideas of God and Man without denigrating either. He tells us that he is an atheist, yet he leaves room for the possibility of a larger power in the universe. This is not a polemic text promoting science exclusively; Lightman objectively presents what science can prove and what also might exist beyond the simple laws of nature. He explains that most now believe we exist in a multitude of universes, and they are hard at work to find what they have called “the Theory of Everything,” the grand interlinking of all the laws of nature and this multiverse.
As for the religious component, Lightman writes that “Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis.” He quotes the Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley who “argued that the entire cosmos is a construct of our minds, that there is no material reality outside our thoughts.” In short, we are, as Poe wrote, just a dream within a dream. There is room in the multiverse for such theories, according to Lightman. He leaves room for the wonders of the visible and invisible world, explaining that the “full electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye is miniscule. All of the other wavelengths of light are constantly careening through space, flying past our bodies, and presenting strange pictures of the objects that made them—the glow of a warm desert at night, the radio emission of electrons spiraling in the Earth’s magnetic field, the X-rays from magnetic storms on the sun.”
The real strength of Lightman’s writing is his poetry. The man can write, and he is an academic scientist as well, a powerful combination for which the reader is the beneficiary. As I read, I marveled at the science, the clear and concise explanations, and his wonderfully poetic prose. That is what first drew me to his work, and why I continue to buy his books when they are published. I can think of no better science writer currently at work in the world. His words have power and nuance, and he never loses the reader in jargon nor does he condescend to non-scientists like me.
I am always a little nervous when I hear President Obama or Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk about how American schools should be focused on science and math. They fail to mention the importance of the humanities, and often, reading and writing seem almost an afterthought in current trends in education. Alan Lightman’s work would be the perfect bridge between the sciences and the humanities. His essays, collected together in several volumes, should be required reading for high school and college students in both disciplines. As Lightman makes clear in his work, everything is connected, and therefore, we cannot afford to simply focus on a single area. We must see, like the quantum strings that theoretically run through the multiverse, those intricate connections in our own existence.