Complex science made accessible.
Novelist, physicist, and popular science writer Lightman gathers together essays—some previously published in the New Yorker, Guernica, the New York Times, and other publications—that discuss scientists, their imaginations, and their discoveries. “Spectacular things are going on out there,” he writes, “whether we notice or not.” As in his previous books of both nonfiction and fiction, Lightman is once again our helpful, genial guide to the mysteries of the universe. He begins with Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was “practically unique in being a humanist and a scientist at once.” What the author finds most interesting about Pascal is his “imagination of the…infinitely small and the infinitely large.” In “What Came Before the Big Bang?” Lightman notes that physicists believe the “entire universe we see today was far smaller than a single atom,” and somehow time emerged—or did time already exist? He talks with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll about the future, with its “condition of increasing mess,” and the past, with its “increasing tidiness,” in terms of the “improbable smoothness of the observable universe.” Lightman wonders if space goes on “forever, to infinity?” Or is it “finite but without boundary or edge, like the surface of a sphere”? In the essay “On Nothingness,” the author addresses the concept of “empty space” while “Atoms” speculates about the existence of quarks and “extremely tiny one-dimensional ‘strings’ of energy.” Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery that the universe is expanding is “probably the most important cosmic discovery of all time,” and “we expect that the universe will keep expanding forever.” Elsewhere, Lightman writes that it’s “almost certain that life exists elsewhere in the universe.” Discussing visionary physicist Andrei Linde’s concept of a “map of the universes,” Lightman offers up this head-spinner: It’s “possible” that there are “multiple universes, each infinite in extent.” Some “might even have different dimensions than our own universe.”
A roaming, eye-opening, insightful, and literate collection of science writing.