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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

105 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0307908582
ISBN-10: 0307908585
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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

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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
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #481,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 90 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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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE 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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Apocryphile on December 3, 2014
Format: Paperback
Alan Lightman has a gift for lyrical, even poetic prose, as he ponders some of the biggest questions of existence in these collected essays. One is immediately struck by the fact that although a physicist and securely grounded in the real world, the author is able to temporarily transcend these boundaries and speculate on metaphysical, even spiritual, matters within the pages of this book.

As a scientist first and foremost, however, he finds it difficult to scale too high a philosophical ladder. Although he is willing to speculate on the larger questions such as consciousness, the meaning of existence, and the origins of our universe, he is still securely tethered to the "real" world of what our senses and their instrumental extensions can tell us. Though he states that he has no patience for people like Richard Dawkins who try to "prove" that God does not exist, he himself identifies as an atheist who has no patience for people who disregard the importance of the scientific method in seeking the truth. As a scientist, necessarily operating within the scientific paradigm and worldview, he is perhaps unable to lift these spectacles, if only to temporarily look at the world differently.

As the title of the book indicates, Lightman subscribes to the anthropic argument as the best explanation for why our universe is so amenable to life. This hypothesis is a valid and logically consistent one, but I think it is precisely here where the author makes his own unstated leap of faith. One of the hallmarks of a good scientific theory is not only how well it fits the facts, but if it accomplishes this in a parsimonious manner with the fewest assumptions possible.
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