Six Questions — March 19, 2014, 6:29 pm

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

Alan Lightman on the theory of everything, technology as mediator of human experience, and empathizing with the religious impulse

Alan Lightman © Michael Lionstar

For the majority of his writing career, Alan Lightman has been quietly introducing fissures of ambiguity into the scientific community’s pronouncements on art, religion, technology and American culture. The Accidental Universe (Pantheon), Lightman’s recently published collection of essays, belongs to this endeavor, establishing thematic connections between scientific abstractions and inner experience with the warmness and rationalist melancholy that’s characteristic of his work. I put six questions to him about his new book.

1. I suppose my first question has to concern the assembly of this collection. Did you write these essays in thematic isolation at first? Did you have any notion of employing the Universe as their organizing agent?

I wrote “The Accidental Universe” and “The Spiritual Universe” first, both concerning areas of thought that had been under my skin and disturbing me for some years. I published the first in Harper’s and the second in Salon. At that point, it occurred to me to write a series of connected essays, all with “Universe” in the title, that explored the philosophical, moral, and theological issues raised by modern science.

2. You repeatedly return to the apparent duality of your intellectual life. It hadn’t occurred to me until reading this book that this duality is not so much a reflection of you as a whole human being but of the social roles you’ve undertaken — novelist + physicist — which necessarily restrict one’s thinking in unique ways. You insist that you personally “need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives” but I wanted to press you on that. Does this admixture of the spiritual/artistic and the rational/scientific feel real to you in your “lived life,” or is it an artifice that you use in writing because it yields so much discordance?

Great question, and one hard to answer. Let me first restate the duality you are talking about: it is the duality between the scientist and the artist, between the rational and the intuitive, between the physical and the spiritual. Of course, all of us have all of these pieces in us; we differ only in the relative proportions. The different “social roles” I have taken on as a physicist and as a novelist, I think, originate in my lived life as well as in my intellectual life. In childhood, I had two quite different groups of friends. I had my science friends. These were the (mostly) guys who loved algebra homework, loved to build rockets, demanded a logical explanation for why people put pennies in their loafers. And I had my “art” friends. These were the people who read unassigned novels and poems, acted in school plays, and reacted impulsively to people and events. I hung out with both groups and really enjoyed being part of both communities. I built rockets, and I also wrote poetry and acted in school plays. I never felt like I was not being myself in either group. The intellectual expression of these dualities in my life came later.

3. You touch briefly on the physicist’s hope for a Theory of Everything — a complete, unified theory of reality. Perhaps, being a physicist, you could illuminate the appeal of such an apocalyptic achievement. Once an unassailable theory of nature is established, scientific inquiry is effectively over. Obviously, this is purely hypothetical, but let’s assume it were possible. Why would anyone want such a theory, especially the physicist whose creative engagement depends on mystery?

First of all, I do not think we will ever have a complete theory of nature. The history of science has been a continuing progress of deeper and deeper understanding, of theories with greater and greater accuracy and predictive power. I see no reason why this progression will come to an end. But even if it did come to an end, in the sense that we had one master equation that contained all the fundamental principles of nature, there would still be a great deal for science to do. The working out of that equation and application of it to all the zillions of different physical situations of matter and energy on earth would occupy scientists for eons. That ultimate master equation would be like knowing the rules of chess. Once you know how the bishop moves and the pawn moves and the queen moves, you have not conquered the game. There are still zillions of different possible configurations on the chessboard, and lots of different strategies that need to be analyzed and explored — requiring renewed creativity. So, I see scientists in business for a long time, at least for the next 5 billion years until our sun burns out.

4. You mention Sherry Turkle, who studies social-media culture, in the final essay, “The Disembodied Universe.” You and Turkle both seem to oppose the general cultural drift toward mediated experience and the radically superficial ways by which technological apparatus characterize human personality. But is literature — something I feel safe in saying you and I treasure — not a form of mediation? No one could ever sensibly argue that reading books is a replacement for being with other people. Yet both experiences yield a different richness. Is there some sort of distinction to be made between forms of mediation?

You make a good point. And I do not think there is much real difference between reading books and looking at words on a computer screen — both offer the opportunity to learn new things and to have new emotional experiences, and both can be abused and empty of content. I would have the same misgivings about a person reading a book while walking through a beautiful forest as I would a person fixated on their iPhone instead of paying attention to their physical surroundings. I believe that we need to have balanced lives. We need to have direct, immediate experience with the world and with people, in addition to inner and solitary experiences. Like Turkle, I think that there has been a cultural drift toward indirect, mediated experience with the world, brought about by the unthinking use of technology.

From The Accidental Universe:

To my mind it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete.

5. One thing I’ve admired in your science writing is your treatment of what’s often called the “religious impulse” — the rooted, sensible intuition that life ultimately matters, even if we can’t see why. You’re frank about your own atheism — as Stephen Jay Gould was, or Richard Lewontin is — but like those scientists you don’t seem to equate atheism with nihilism, nor do you posture as an adversary to all things metaphysical. You even express some sympathy for revealed and scriptural religion in this book. A surprising sympathy, I thought. Is there any particular motivation for this approach, other than traditional decency?

There is certainly more than traditional decency. I do not think spirituality and atheism are contradictory. For me, spirituality includes the belief in things larger than ourselves, an appreciation of nature and beauty, a sensitivity to the world, a feeling of shared connection with other living things, a desire to help people less fortunate than ourselves. All of these things can occur with or without God. I do not believe in the existence of God, but I consider myself a spiritual person in the manner I have just described. I call myself a spiritual atheist. I would imagine that many people are spiritual atheists.

The Accidental Universe6. Speaking of science and religion, you may have heard that Bill Nye recently debated creationist Ken Ham at the Creation Museum’s Legacy Hall in Cincinnati. Evidently, it was quite the theatre: sold-out; moderated by CNN’s Tim Foreman; streamed live through over 10,000 outlets. I’ve always seen a gladiatorial quality in these debates, which are extremely popular. This is a terribly leading question, but given the subtlety with which you approach these issues, I’m wondering if you see any particular reason for our culture’s preference for these venues?

Now you are getting into sociological and anthropological territory, where I am certainly no expert. For whatever my amateur opinion is worth, it seems historically clear that we like entertainment writ large, on stage (e.g., the early development of theater, public orations, parades, etc.). We also like combat, which appeals to our primitive instincts to defend our turf and to fight. Public combat is the best of all. We can sit back and watch others go for each other’s throats, on stage, while we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, “It’s them, not me. I’m safe.”

To be fair, we also like some intellectual stimulation, we’re not complete animals. A public debate about significant issues, like science versus religion, satisfies all of these desires. Unfortunately, public debates do not have much room for subtlety.  The audience wants a quick thrust at your opponent, not a slow and convoluted series of moves. Whenever Obama uses subtleties in discussing a complex issue, he gets creamed.

Share
Single Page

More from Trevor Quirk:

Six Questions August 28, 2014, 12:56 pm

William Deresiewicz on Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz discusses the miseducation of the American elite

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Resistances

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Article
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Article
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
Article
Resistances·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today