Alan Lightman (Murdoch) 2014, 176pp, RRP $29.99
Author Alan Lightman is a scientist and a philosopher and a novelist. While these disciplines seem at once at odds, he uses such eclectic expertise to bring together the wonders of science, philosophy, humanity, religion and arts in this fascinating book, which marauds through the universe – and then the multiverse – often raising more questions than it answers. Deliciously, and almost sacrilegiously for a science educator, Lightman doesn’t always care for answers; he prefers his science with a humanly unpredictable edge.
No, this is no dry science textbook and Lightman isn’t your average science educator. In fact, The Accidental Universe is the sort of book that would be good to have been read when at school to make you realise that there’s more to science than test tubes and Petri dishes; that an understanding of science does not rule out; that not everything has been discovered.
Lightman ruminates on contradictory human desires: why we like symmetry, why we like asymmetry; why do we search for permanence when we understand the fleetingness of life?
He takes you outside your own life and makes you realise the world is so much bigger than you, but he also keeps you inside your life as it makes you reflect back in on you. He takes on the bold themes of science versus religion and how they can coexist, how science can be just as destructive as religion. He also explains why he himself is an atheist who also has great truck with faith.
Lightman does not shy away from imposing his point of view, but he justifies it, and does not demand that you agree with him. Some strayings into the personal arena grate: tales of floating along on the Aegean Sea; of giving his daughter away, and of an encounter with some ospreys smack of personal indulgence.
Yet his explanation of the tensions between teaching a practical Physics class immediately followed by a fiction-writing class is absorbing. And that’s at the heart of this book: the fascinating line between what’s known and what we don’t know and what we could know and what we will know and what we will never know and, well, should we even know it? It’s where humanity and science collide.
This is a very accessible book, big on ideas and philosophy and doesn’t tread deeply into the more technical side of science, not even compared to other books for the layperson. Lightman concludes with a prediction of the future, that we will one day be part human/part machine. He can’t know for sure, of course, it’s just an educated guess. You might not come away with all the answers. You might end up with more questions. But ultimately that, he suggests, is no bad thing. Or is it?
The Accidental Universe is available through Murdoch Books.