Harrison Middleton University

BOOK REVIEW: The Accidental Universe

BOOK REVIEW: The Accidental Universe

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


October 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In The Accidental Universe; The World You Thought You Knew, Alan Lightman separates out seven different types of universe. He dedicates each chapter to way of interpreting the universe including things like: accidental, temporary, spiritual and symmetrical. Lightman straddles both the sciences and the humanities, and this book is a sort of creative non-fiction. He explores complex science topics and elaborates his points with examples from both disciplines.

In these chapters, he explores what it means to be a part of a universe, our universe. He understands the complexity of visualizing such a diverse and unknowable thing, while also realizing that whether or not we visualize the greatness, we are a part of it. He asks how one might see a self interacting with and participating in the universe. In the chapter titled “The Gargantuan Universe,” Lightman explores the literal size of the universe. As is his style, he begins with an anecdote of sailing a small boat out to sea with nothing in sight. This image draws us into a recognizable experience. From there, he explores the very vast dimensions of the universe. He notes that while Isaac Newton was not the first scientist to attempt to quantify the heavens, he was the first with any measurable accuracy. Lightman writes:

“(Only someone as accomplished as Newton could have been the first to perform such a calculation and have it go almost unnoticed among his other achievements.) If one assumes that the stars are similar objects to our sun, equal in intrinsic luminosity, Newton asked, how far away would our sun have to be in order to appear as faint as nearby stars? Writing his computation in a spidery script, with a quill dipped in the ink of oak galls, Newton correctly concluded that the nearest stars are about one hundred thousand times the distance from Earth to the sun, or roughly ten trillion miles away. Newton’s calculation is contained in a short section of his Principia, titled simply ‘On the Distance of the Stars.’

“Newton’s estimate of the distance to nearby stars was larger than any distance imagined before in human history. Even today, nothing in our experience allows us to relate to it. The fastest most of us has traveled is about five hundred miles per hour, the speed of a jet airplane. If we set out for the nearest star beyond our solar system at that speed, it would take about five million years to reach our destination. If we traveled in the fastest rocket ship ever manufactured on Earth, the trip would take one hundred thousand years, at least a thousand human life spans.”

I like the way his text moves between ancient texts, lived experience, and data. He writes in an inviting and conversational tone which is easy to follow. But more importantly, he draws upon excellent resources, such as Newton.

Perhaps my favorite chapter of his book is called “The Symmetrical Universe.” This fascinating section wonders at nature’s ability for perfect symmetry. Why are planets round and why do we appreciate their size and shape? In another example, he moves into a discussion of the bee’s hive. He writes:

“Each cell of a honeycomb is a nearly perfect hexagon, a space with six identical and equally spaced walls. Isn’t that surprising? Wouldn’t it be more plausible to find cells of all kinds of shapes and sizes, fitted together in a haphazard manner? It is a mathematical truth that there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps: equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons. Any gaps between cells would be wasted space. Gaps would defeat the principle of economy. Now you might ask why the sides of a cell in a beehive need to be equal in length. It is possible that each cell could have a random shape and unequal sides and the next cell then be custom made to fit into that cell, without gaps. And so on, one cell after another, each one fit to the one before it. But this method of constructing a honeycomb would require that the worker bees work sequentially, one at a time, first making one cell, then fitting the next cell to that, and so on. This procedure would be a waste of time for the bees. Each insect would have to wait in line for the guy in front to finish his cell. If you’ve ever seen bees building a beehive…they don’t wait for one another. They work simultaneously. So the bees need to have a game plan in advance, knowing that all the cells will fit together automatically. Only equilateral triangles, squares and hexagons will do.

“But why hexagons? Here unfolds another fascinating story. More than two thousand years ago, in 36 BC, the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro conjectured that the hexagonal grid is the unique geometrical shape that divides a surface into equal cells with the smallest total perimeter. And the smallest total perimeter, or smallest total length of sides, means the smallest amount of wax needed by the bees to construct their honeycomb. For every ounce of wax, a bee must consume about eight ounces of honey. That’s a lot of work, requiring thousands of visits to thousands of flowers and much flapping of wings. The hexagon minimizes the effort and expense of energy. But Varro had made only a conjecture. Astoundingly, Varro’s conjecture, known by mathematicians as the Honeycomb Conjecture, was proven only recently, in 1999, by the American mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it was true all along.”

This passage highlights my favorite things about this text: he unfolds a variety of outside sources and allusions in order to illuminate a natural principle. It is almost like watching a flower open, where each petal adds a new source or dimension to the original image.

Even more interesting than the perfection of nature or its desire for symmetry, is man’s interaction with nature. Lightman links symmetry to the idea of beauty, but then wonders why man often makes asymmetrical art. He concludes:

“In the end, it is easier to explain why bees construct honeycombs shaped like perfect hexagons than why human beings place identical towers on the sides of the Taj Mahal…. The first is a result of economy and mathematics, the second of psychology and aesthetics.”

The book ends with a chapter titled “The Disembodied Universe.” In it, Lightman expresses remorse for the increasing role that technology plays in the human life. Lightman envisions the future human as part android, or at the very least, inseparable from technology. I believe that, while he is grateful for advances in health and data, etc. as a result of technology, he struggles with this plugged-in human because they are oblivious to nature around them. Up to this point, humans have learned the most by observing nature and clearly we have more to learn. His book is a kind of ode to science in which he also addresses faith, but more broadly, he wonders about this approaching line of human and technology.

The Accidental Universe walks through ways of seeing the universe that are both instructive and beautiful. Time spent pondering this great vast place in which we live can only deepen our humanity.

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