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Thursday, 14 January 2016

Retro Review: "The Accidental Universe" by Alan Lightman

Anyone else struggling with January? My trouble with this month is part of the reason I decided to pick up this collection of essays by the author of Einstein's Dreams (everyone should read this book). When things are bleak and your life feels directionless, something meaningful and profound is called for and that is just what you get if you delve into this book.

I am not a physicist, nor am I particularly well versed on scientific discoveries, though this collection examines the tensions between scientific and spiritual belief, the onset of a highly technological age, and the struggle to make sense of our own existence in a universe so vast it is beyond the scope of our imagination.

What I loved about these essays was that Lightman retains an appreciation and respect for the beliefs of others while acknowledging that he doesn't hold religious beliefs himself. How refreshing it is to find an atheist who is open to considering the whys of our inner lives without dismissing those who have faith in something bigger than ourselves.

He is able to concisely and beautifully write about scientific discoveries while exploring the profound questions of our own existence. There are the moments of beauty readers of his other work have come to expect, such as his description of the experience of being temporarily out of sight of land off the coast of Greece:

Decades ago, when I was sailing with my wife in the Aegean Sea, in the midst of unending water and sky, I had a slight inkling of infinity. It was a sensation I had not experienced before, accompanied by feelings of awe, transcendence, fear, sublimity, disorientation, alienation, and disbelief. 
(The Gargantuan Universe)

The science is described in understandable terms and you'll finish the book feeling wiser even if you've not found all the answers. Part of what makes this collection so brilliant is Lightman's acknowledgement that these are human struggles; struggles we'll continue to contend with for as long as we inhabit this universe.

If you're looking for an insightful and meaningful consideration of the challenges of human existence, this is an excellent book for you.

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