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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.