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77 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our small stature in a very big place
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...
Published 13 months ago by John L Murphy

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46 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Retread of false equivalency
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...
Published 12 months ago by MZ


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77 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our small stature in a very big place, January 14, 2014
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.

Provocatively, Lightman compares how insignificant we are, stuck in a minor galaxy on a middling planet in a marginal status, yet we have figured out so much about the universe that surrounds us, if not the next stage, which we may never be able to discern to our satisfaction, that of multiverses. He tells us that our little worlds on a similarly infinitesimal level may elude our grasp. He imagines us as captains of a ship, up on a bridge, unable to discern fully from our perch what tumult lies below deck.

This sort of deft analogy, modest and never drawing too much attention to itself, characterizes Lightman's approach. Unlike some of his colleagues who write such essays, he keeps the math to a minimum while accentuating the verbal and visual images that he hones to remind us of the sheer amount we know now about our origins, back to the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. But, as we cannot penetrate that first moment of the Big Bang, that too stands to teach us of our own small stature, and how much the universe, big or small in these essays, continues to keep from our eager investigation. All the same, people such as Lightman inspire us to keep asking why.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His Thinking Mirrors My Own, January 31, 2014
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Timothy Haugh (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (Hardcover)
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. On the other hand, Lightman’s also has another side, a contrarian side that looks at the universe differently, and this also comes through.

For lack of a better term, this is his “spiritual” side which is the second strong undercurrent in these pages. Though he remains basically atheist himself, he realizes the importance and the power of faith. I try to strike this balance myself and I find his thinking runs very close to mine. He certainly has the best words to say to the militant atheists I’ve read so far: “As a scientist, I find Dawkins’s efforts to rebut these two arguments for the existence of God—Intelligent Design and morality—completely convincing. However, as I think he would acknowledge, falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not falsify the proposition. Science can never know what created our universe…The belief or disbelief in such a Being is a matter of faith.” He goes on to say (after more kind words about Dawkins and his accomplishments): “What troubles me about Dawkins’s pronouncements is his wholesale dismissal of religion and religious sensibility…In my opinion, Dawkins has a narrow view of faith and of people. I would be the first to challenge any belief that contradicts the findings of science. But, as I have said earlier, there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods of science” (p. 49 – 51). I have quoted this rather extensively but, as one who follows these arguments rather closely, I think Lightman has hit it on the head here. (Others, I know, will disagree.)

In the end, I was impressed by Lightman’s thinking here. He expounds easily on matters of science both historical and current. He also obviously considers the meanings of things deeply and speaks well on the subject. I recommend this highly to anyone interested in science and faith.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Poetic Universe, December 3, 2014
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. As he himself says, the only other logical possibility is that a creator of some sort is responsible, but the multiverse idea itself is obviously very far from a parsimonious explanation.

That this anthropic scenario must be invoked to avoid a creator is perhaps the best indication that cosmology has hit a brick wall. The best support so far for the multiverse comes from the close agreement of the observed microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang with the theory of inflation. Since one necessary byproduct of inflation is the multiverse – it naturally “falls out” of the theory – many cosmologists are now beginning to seriously consider it. The multiverse is also consistent with quantum mechanics from a theoretical angle (the “many worlds” conjecture), and so also has this pillar of modern science backing it up - but this, needless to say, makes it no less strange.

What we are left with are two equally radical options – God or the Multiverse – and neither is more elegant than the other from a standpoint of economy. This is where I think the author’s professed atheism makes no sense. To state simply that one believes God does not exist isn’t any more useful than saying he does exist - from a scientific standpoint there isn’t enough evidence yet to make either claim. There is also the question of how far mathematics, and logic itself, can be applied here. In an infinite multiverse where every possibility is realized somewhere infinitely many times, one must still assume that the quantum laws, or at least the laws of probability, are valid across the multiverse and underlie everything. At the end of the universe, as I think the author himself would acknowledge, we are still left with awe and mystery.
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46 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Retread of false equivalency, February 15, 2014
By 
MZ (Minnesota) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (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. The majority of believers on Earth are something other than Christian. People of the false equivalency school of thought (like Lightman) are oblivious to that fact. There is more to religion than Christianity; and there is more to Richard Dawkins than atheism.

Alan Lightman could and should write elegantly about what he knows. But for now, his intellectual reach does not extend to spirituality.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Balance of Physics and Humanities, October 18, 2014
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Author Alan Lightman strikes a wonderful balance between physics and humanities, written with the skills of someone who excels as a writer. He communicates the evolution of physics in a way that is understandable, even for those who are not highly science knowledgeable and he puts each chapter in the context of our daily life.

I am left with a clear and honest sense of the universe and how it is changing. I am also thinking about how a sense of spirituality can coexist with the science. The issues and questions of our times are kindly laid out for the reader to consider, without strong advocacy for any point of view. For me, this book was a page-turner.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pretty good book, May 12, 2014
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Jonathan S. Holman "Spy reader" (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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Let me start by saying that Einstein's Dreams is one of my favorite all-time books. Alan Lightman definitely knows how to write. What I've concluded, however, is that he had one truly great idea and is struggling to find another. This book tries to look at the universe from differing perspectives, much as he tried to look at Einstein's concept of time from different perspectives, and there are some good nuggets in here. It just isn't as robust, nor is the concept as strong. Worth reading, just not special.
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24 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but one sided view, March 5, 2014
By 
John Martin (Las Vegas Nevada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (Hardcover)
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. Foucault proved that the earth spins on its axis by using a pendulum, yet such an idea is not experienced by our senses—we do not get dizzy and if we throw something up in the air it comes down in the same place. Einstein showed that time is relative and changes depending on speed, but it takes extremely high speeds to demonstrate this phenomenon to a visible degree. Hertz showed that radio waves are invisible. Thus we see and experience only a tiny fraction of reality.

In sum this book is well worth reading as it gives you a better understanding of the world and universe we live in and is written in an engaging way that laypersons can understand.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars well worth it, October 15, 2014
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This book presents a refreshing, healthy approach to atheism. There were moments in the reading of it that I almost questioned if the writer really WAS an atheist. His open mindedness to spirituality is so very welcome in a playing field dominated by totalitarians like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. There probably is no God, but that doesn't negate our feelings of mystery and spirituality.
While I really liked the last chapter, which dealt with the effects of gadget tech on our lives, it didn't seem to belong in the book. I didn't see how it connected with the subject discussed in all the previous chapters. That said, I would love to read a whole book of this man's writing on technology and it's impact. He's a really good writer.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short sweet and learned., April 4, 2014
By 
Sam McClendon (GLASTONBURY, CT, US) - See all my reviews
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Alan is on firm ground and shredding the esoteric for common and super brains at once. Inciteful comments on what is, and how we know. Actually brief study of brilliance of human knowledge.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!, March 4, 2014
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No one writes about this stuff as well. This is my favorite book by Lightman. Makes me want to re-read the others.
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The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman (Hardcover - January 14, 2014)
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