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.

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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“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.”

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