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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew [Kindle Edition]

Alan Lightman
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $24.00
Kindle Price: $10.99
You Save: $13.01 (54%)
Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

“Alan Lightman brings a light touch to heavy questions. Here is a book about nesting ospreys, multiple universes, atheism, spiritualism, and the arrow of time. Throughout, Lightman takes us back and forth between ordinary occurrences—old shoes and entropy, sailing far out at sea and the infinite expanse of space.
“In this slight volume, Lightman looks toward the universe and captures aspects of it in a series of beautifully written essays, each offering a glimpse at the whole from a different perspective: here time, there symmetry, not least God. It is a meditation by a remarkable humanist-physicist, a book worth reading by anyone entranced by big ideas grounded in the physical world.”
—Peter L. Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University

Editorial Reviews Review

Guest Review of “The Accidental Universe,” by Alan Lightman

By Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the author of eight more books, including Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.

He holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT , and is the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society. He has also helped to organize dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists to promote deeper understanding of different ways of knowing and probing the nature of mind, emotions, and reality.

A Walden for our digital, cosmological, and quantum age from a modern-day Thoreau. Not since Fred Hoyle in another era (and universe) has anyone dared to cover such a sweeping domain, and no one so elegantly, so parsimoniously, and so personally. From the triumph of the Higgs boson to the underlying discomfort of multiverses, from the question of God to the erosion of embodied presence via digital self-distraction, Lightman explores with wistful irony, lyricism, and insight his relationship as a theoretical physicist, a cosmologist, a novelist, a humanist, and a human being to the ever-changing and mysterious interior and exterior universes we all inhabit, knowingly or not. Any one of these essays invites deep reflection. Together, they disturb, inform, inspire, and delight.


From Booklist

Theoretical physicist and novelist Lightman (Mr. g, 2012) presents seven elegantly provocative “universe” essays that elucidate complex scientific thought in the context of everyday experiences and concerns. In the title piece, he traces the great cosmological shakeup that has top physicists theorizing that our universe is but one of many “with wildly varying properties.” Lightman brings rigor and candor to his analysis of the coexistence of religion and science. He takes on our misperceptions about time and grapples with the “deep question” of why symmetry abounds in nature, from snowflakes to the Higgs boson. After blowing our minds with descriptions of “galaxies and stars so distant their images have taken billions of years to reach our eyes,” he wonders if we accept this realm as part of our understanding of nature. And in “The Disembodied Universe,” he considers the implications of our enchantment with the virtual cosmos at our fingertips. Ranging from ancient intuitions and calculations to today’s high-tech inquiries, Lightman celebrates our grand quest for knowledge and takes measure of the challenges our discoveries deliver. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our small stature in a very big place January 14, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
What this MIT physicist and humanist (he holds a joint professorship, and this leads as he notes crossing his campus to some mental adjustment as he bridges the gaps) brings to familiar Big Questions is a gentle sense of wonder tempered with a scientific rigor. Both qualities are enhanced by his humility, and he accepts that we may not be able to answer what some of his colleagues anticipate as the Unified Theory that explains (after the Higgs Boson) everything. Instead, he cautions us to keep balancing in a humane (if still rational and certainly secular) approach our dual capacity of exacting and verifiable measurement and very cautious speculation.

As these linked essays show, the universe can be conceived as alternately or respectively accidental, temporary, spiritual, symmetrical, gargantuan, lawful, or disembodied. He applies his life's moments gently to enrich his lessons. I like reading books for popular audiences about cosmology, so I found Alan Lightman's style (in an advanced copy for review) engaging and accessible. He brings in his daughter's wedding on the Maine coast, his beloved pair of wingtip shoes, the amazing hexagonal symmetry of a honeycomb, or the disturbing harbinger of a world where our young appear to be wired, shut off from conversation, and online all the time. However, as his last chapter predicts, even those who try to flee the virtual realm as it takes over our physical and spiritual worlds may find themselves shut off from yet another universe now evolving.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His Thinking Mirrors My Own January 31, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Over the years, I have read many of Professor Lightman’s books. For me, his work is a mixed bag—sometimes great, sometimes no more than adequate. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I can report The Accidental Universe to belong in the former category. This is a wonderful book.

Most readers are likely familiar with Lightman because of his fiction: Einstein’s Dreams, Good Benito, Reunion (a personal favorite), and others. This book, however, is a work of nonfiction. It is essentially a series of short meditations on the universe by this author who is, after all, both a professor of physics and the humanities.

Meditations is the right word, I think. These brief essays each have the universe as their topic but approach it from a different aspect. Most of the titles give you a clue. “The Temporary Universe” discusses entropy and change, “The Gargantuan Universe” discusses its size with we as a speck in the vastness, and “The Symmetrical Universe” talks about—what else?—symmetry and its intellectual attractiveness (as well as the importance of the Higgs particle).

The two best sections, though, are “The Lawful Universe” and “The Spiritual Universe”. In a sense, they give the underlying themes of the book as a whole. First, there are things about the universe that are intellectually understandable. Over the centuries, the scope of the things that we understand—that we have laws about—has widened considerably, as our conception of the universe itself has grown. (How many of us realize that it was only a hundred years ago that the brightest minds on earth considered the “universe” to consist of a static Milky Way galaxy?) Lightman’s scientific bent enables him to grasp our need for scientific laws quite clearly.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but one sided view March 5, 2014
On beginning to read The Accidental Universe by Professor Alan Lightman you may think that it is a work of science fiction as he discusses the possibility of there being many universes (the multiverse). While Sheldon Cooper, the central character of the TV show The Big Bang, might be enamored of such a concept, most of us would simply be amused. But Professor Lightman, who is a theoretical physicist with appointments at both Harvard and MIT, is not really interested in exploring this possibility. Rather each chapter of the book focuses on different ways to view our present universe. In each of these chapters he provides interesting and valuable perspectives on how we can view the world and universe.

For example he takes on the question of the compatibility of science and religion and while admitted that he is an atheist he acknowledges that many scientists have deep religious beliefs. He notes that the Central Doctrine of Science is that all properties and events in the physical world are governed by laws that are always and everywhere true—but that they are modified over time by new discoveries. God, on the other hand, is understood to be a Being not restricted by such laws. Thus God and science are compatible as long as God does not interfere AFTER the universe has begun. Thus an interventionist God is incompatible with science. Religion is personal and subjective and thus is different from science.

In the chapter the Gargantuan Universe he takes on the question of whether or not there is life elsewhere and notes that some 3% of all stars have a life-sustaining planet and since there are very many stars, the likelihood is that some form of life exists elsewhere. In the Disembodied Universe he notes that we largely perceive the world through machines and thought processes.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking. Lightman's point of view begins with science ...
Thought provoking. Lightman's point of view begins with science and then moves to the philosophical. It is about time that science began to drive the discussion. Read more
Published 6 days ago by Elta Wilson
4.0 out of 5 stars Lightman did a wonderful job of explaining very complex ideas...
Mr. Lightman did a wonderful job of explaining very complex ideas concerning the origin of the universe and the dilemma facing theoretical physicist trying to explain how the... Read more
Published 7 days ago by Steve haines
5.0 out of 5 stars mind-expanding
Mind-expanding while being an easy read . . . That's a rare combination . . . Across a very wide swath of intellectual territories.
Published 9 days ago by SK
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
This is a book everyone should read.
Published 13 days ago by Mrs J. Hubbard
4.0 out of 5 stars Elegant presentation of perspectives on our Universe
This is a brief, elegant collection of essays examining several alternative perspectives for understanding our universe. Read more
Published 22 days ago by Montana Skyline
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent, thought-provoking, very readable.
Published 23 days ago by Harry Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent thought provoking essays
Collection of essays on our reality, physical and spiritual. Takes me where I love to be. Written by a master who understands modern physics and loves to tell us about it.
Published 24 days ago by kaon
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and engaging.
A book that explains topics that I have always wanted to know about in a very simple and engaging way.
Published 1 month ago by C.M.
4.0 out of 5 stars This was an interesting book for non scientists
And also, even though the author is agnostic, he wrote an even handed book that could appeal to believers. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Nashville Nancy
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughts on big questions
Book offers many perspectives re science and humanities. Ebook format is convenient. Will use the text for discussion course for señor citizens.
Published 2 months ago by Larry Fincher
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More About the Author

Alan Lightman, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences since 1996, is adjunct professor of humanities at MIT. He is the author of several books on science, including "Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe" (1991) and "Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists" (with R. Brawer, 1990). His works of fiction include "Einstein's Dreams" (1993), "The Diagnosis" (2000), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and, most recently, "Reunion" (2003).

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