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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 14, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0307908582 ISBN-10: 0307908585

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 157 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (January 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307908585
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307908582
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,021 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

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).

Customer Reviews

Very enlightening & easy to read.
Robert A. Christiansen
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.
John L Murphy
One of the books you wish could be longer and will likely read again.
Guy S. Michael

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 60 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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39 of 56 people found the following review helpful By MZ on February 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover
First, if you read a wide variety of magazines, online and otherwise, you may be disappointed to find out that many of the essays contained in this small book were previously printed in Salon, Orion, Harper's, etc. This fact is acknowledged in the first pages, but I don't know if it is revealed in the Amazon preview. My review will address what I believe is the weakest and most decisive chapter of this book: The Spiritual Universe.

Alan Lightman, like many other scientists, falls into a tired kind of categorical thinking when it comes to religion. He seems to think that once you have addressed the existence of Christians in the fields of academia and research, then the topic of spirituality in science has been sufficiently covered. While there are cursory mentions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the three separate Abrahamic faiths, it is clear that Lightman doesn't have a firm grasp on any of them (except perhaps contemporary Christianity). On page 58 he writes of the "Old Testament of Judaism." There is no Old Testament in Judaism. That is a Christian term for the Hebrew Bible, and frankly, a lazy one.

Lightman attempts to equate Christianity with all religious thought known to man. He cites three exemplary men of faith who study and practice science (Collins, Hutchinson, and Gingerich); not surprisingly, they are all devout Christians. In contrast, Lightman obviously harbors negative feelings about Richard Dawkins. He accuses Dawkins of being narrow-minded about people of faith, and of using words of condescension toward Christians; but then he goes on to commit these mental sins in writing about Dawkins. Inadvertently, Lightman is himself narrow-minded about the wide variety of spiritual possibilities found in the world's religions.
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