A graveyard of stars

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I READ Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams” when I was in my college days and it was one of those books that started my fascination with theoretical physics. In vignettes that sought to convey the renowned scientist’s theory of relativity in clear yet literary fashion, Lightman made me swoon with delight over the implications of a world where time was not the mechanical and reliable chronicler of moments but instead functioned like the melting clock in Dali’s paintings.

In his new work, “The Accidental Universe (2013),” he embarks on a similar project. This time, he delivers a set of expositions about the recent developments in theoretical physics and their implications in how we understand the universe and ourselves.

He is the only professor to hold teaching duties in both physics and literature departments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT being both an astrophysicist and novelist. Here, he ventures very close to the field of existential philosophy and for that matter sociology without being too academic in his discourse. He cites generously from Nobel Prize awardees from the field of theoretical physics like Alan Guth to classical and contemporary philosophers such as Democritus and Michel Foucault to paintings and personal anecdotes in clear understandable language.


I would even be bold enough to say that the feel of his writing, just like in Einstein’s Dreams, is very personal and contemplative. It is like reading Dostoyevsky if the Russian novelist were a present-day astrophysicist. The book showcases the personal struggle of an atheist academic as he confronts his existential dread with his accumulated knowledge about the nature of the universe.

He posits a number of scary suppositions, all based from the latest findings in the most advanced laboratories in the field of theoretical physics. Despite science’s best effort to explain the intelligent design of the cosmos, there seems to be no grand architecture. Everything is just a product of random permutations in the game of life where cause and effect relations do not hold. If there are things constant, these are chaos and decay instead of order and symmetry. In fact, we are on the path of annihilation millions of years from now when our particular universe collides with another in a catastrophic destruction of explosions and gravitational forces gone awry.

He warns of many other ominous things in a clear and cool manner which betrays his background as a scientist. But it is when he brings the discussion beyond science to contemplate on the implications of such findings to human affairs is where the reward is for the reader, I believe.

For instance, he reveals that the stars we see in the night sky are a snapshot of the universe 20 million years ago on average, given that it takes that much time for light to reach us even at the velocity of 300,000 kilometers per second. Thus, what we see is actually the graveyard of part of the cosmos which in all probability no longer exist at the moment we gaze at them.

He juxtaposes the drive of the cosmos towards nothingness with his personal feelings about giving his daughter’s hand in marriage and even his own mortality. He seems to be saying that our personal feelings of pain and bereavement lose their meaning given the eternal march of the whole universe toward chaos and death.

But then he offers hope. He curiously presents religion as the balm to the dread that should come out from all these horrific yet scientifically-proven findings. While he declares his status as a non-believer, he gives room for people to hold religious beliefs especially in matters that science could not explain or in this case, when science could not arrive at a satisfying answer.

In one of the touching moments of the book, he recounts how he and his wife have been documenting birds of prey, an osprey couple, nesting just outside their residence. They have been observing the birds for years as they hatched and cared for their chicks in their annual cycle of nesting and migration to as far away as South America.

One time, the male and female birds, perhaps accustomed to his presence and wanting to acknowledge his existence, flew and swooped toward him, wings outstretched and in blinding speed. The few seconds of eye-contact between bird and man was for Lightman an example of a non-religious yet spiritual experience, a wordsworthian moment. He wrote: “It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we share the same land…it was one of the profoundest moments in my life.”

Theoretical physics may have failed in figuring out everything about the universe and the stars. But we need not look far to achieve understanding. Lightman only looked deep into his heart and found some answers.


(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on April 15, 2014.


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