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‘The Accidental Universe’ by Alan Lightman

On Christmas Day I stood on a slow-moving conveyor belt in Mexico City at the modern shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, surrounded by penitents clutching rosaries, all of us inching by the centuries-old image that attracts millions. A woman standing next to me closed her eyes and voiced ardent prayers for protection and healing. I looked with a skeptic’s eyes. The scene puts me in mind of what Alan Lightman terms the “boundaries between science and religion” in his new collection, “The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.” Regardless of outstanding interests in science or religion, 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.

Can science prove the existence of God? Is this universe we inhabit the only one? Can a religious experience be scientifically proven? Lightman ponders these timeless, unanswerable questions using his training as both a scientist and a novelist, always careful to include historical and contemporary perspectives on each argument or idea. Lightman’s style is wonderfully readable; he writes about quantum physics and religious philosophical traditions with equal grace and enthusiasm. He delicately probes the emotional questions raised by genetics, molecular biology, and other scientific disciplines, maintaining that despite a preponderance of scientific advancement and evidence about specific aspects of the world, “we must believe in what we cannot prove.”

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One of the most controversial and fascinating ideas Lightman presents is the notion of the multiverse. “[W]e are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe incalculable by science.” Humans have always wondered if our existence is just an accident, a stroke of luck. Lightman illustrates the ways in which this is both scientifically true and impossible to prove, and how the subsequent angst around such speculation has fueled the discovery of groundbreaking scientific theorems as well as beautiful art. Not only is the idea of a multiverse scientifically likely if not entirely possible, raising questions about the meaning and purpose of life, Lightman explains that we are literally living in a physically shrinking world, even as rapid technological advances in communication create the illusion that the world is more expansive and accessible than ever before.

Throughout the book Lightman draws from his scientific expertise, his work as a writer, and his experiences as a husband and father to examine contradictions. How do we square the human desire for permanence with the knowledge that our days are numbered? Why, he wonders, are we so committed to raising our children into adulthood only to mourn their early years? These unquantifiable moments of ecstasy and despair reflect a need for “unseen order” in the world and cannot be explained or mollified by any scientific theory. In this way, Lightman makes room for the objective and the miraculous. An admitted atheist who is also impatient with ardent scientific efforts to disprove the existence of God, Lightman treats religious perspectives with respect, developing an understanding of faith that is untethered from any religious tradition but is defined as “the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.”

Readers will appreciate the passionately argued belief that human perception and understanding can accommodate a physical and a spiritual universe, and that both the known and the unknown are causes for scientific speculation as well as pure wonder. It was a visit to one of the most famous religious sites in Latin America that helped me understand Lightman’s refreshing sentiment that we are connected to others precisely because “we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.” There exists no obligation to formulate strident definitions of what is true or false. Instead, we must continue to explore and attempt to understand the world in which we happen to live. In the thinking of this scientist, and perhaps to the relief of every reader of this book, Lightman’s accidental world is never a set of givens, but a series of questions that rather than beg to be answered simply long to be asked.

Emily Rapp is the author of “Poster Child: A Memoir” and “The Still Point of the Turning World,” which was a New York Times bestseller. She teaches in the University of California-Palm Desert MFA Program.
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