Book Review: The Accidental Universe
This novel is unconventional. It is non-fiction. It has no plot. It is a collection of short, simple essays, each with its own separate statement about the universe. However, in every sentence and every essay lies something incredibly profound, something eye-opening about the nature of reality. Whether or not you like science and philosophy, this book will certainly give you a newfound appreciation for them, an all that in just 150 pages. It is a journey through human nature and the nature of the universe, with every chapter another stop along the way.
Lightman’s novel can almost be described as humbling, as it parallels descriptions about incredible scientific achievement and human intellect with statements about our insignificance compared to the indiscernible universe, and the invalidity of things that we view as fundamental truths. The more profound discoveries that humankind makes, the more reasons we have to realize that we are not as profound as we perceive ourselves to be. This novel therefore articulates the theme that underlies all of science - finding appreciation and even self-denial in our discoveries- and gives beauty and meaning to science from a perspective that is often unexplored.
Lightman accomplishes this by analyzing both how we relate to science, and how science relates to us. We must learn to reconcile the laws of physics that offer strict explanations to godly phenomena, and theological philosophy that often contradicts scientific belief. We believe in the ambiguity of spirituality, and a preconceived beginning and end (as described by Aristotle), yet we also believe in the unwavering truth of science and the certainty of scientific evidence that mathematically describes every aspect of the insignificant universe that occured just by chance.
We must learn to reconcile order that can be tracked and disorder that escapes the boundaries of mathematics. Chaos theory states that the end state of everything is disorder, yet there is an inherent symmetry to everything in the universe, whether in the geometrically efficient structure of beehives, the elegant interaction of atoms, or the interwoven structure of higher dimensions on a subatomic level.
Finally, we must learn to reconcile our self-importance with the dauntingly endless fabric of space. The novel enables one to understand that the universe paints a picture of our insignificance, yet is the very model for all aspects of our daily lives, whether by examining the aging and the ticking of our own clocks through the lens of relativity, entropy, and the arrow of time, or viewing our disembodiment from the beautiful world around us as we are absorbed in material aspects of life, against the backdrop of science’s disconnect with the vast universe that it is capable of modeling. By describing such opposite concepts in parallel, Lightman articulates the truth of this self-contradicting universe, and helps us understand that seemingly opposite aspects of reality, whether chaos and symmetry, science and theology, reason and artistic philosophy, trivial human discoveries and the endless fabric of space-time do not conflict, but rather coexist, in the beautiful dance of life.