The Universe As a Science Fair Project

EinsteinThe Physicist As Novelist

Alan Lightman is a science-guy who writes books. Good books. Full of science books. But not all science books.

Lightman’s early novel, Einstein’s Dreams, fictionalizes Albert Einstein as a young scientist troubled by dreams as he develops his theory of relativity. Each of the chapters represents one dream. Each dream focuses on a different concept of time. The dreams vary from reasonable, although exaggerated, representations of relativity to some highly imaginative fantasies, but they all demonstrate the relationship a human being has to time. Einstein’s Dreams won’t make you a physicist but it does represent a very interesting amalgam of science and literature. If you haven’t read it, please do.

Lightman has an extensive bibliography which includes many strictly scientific books like his riveting treatment, Great Ideas in Physics: the Conservation of Energy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Theory of Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics. What a good book that was! But if you’re more interested in the less scientific and more fictional books Lightman has written, here is a short list:

      • Einstein’s Dreams
      • Good Benito
      • The Diagnosis
      • Ghost
      • Mr. g
      • Reunion
      • The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
      • The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science
      • A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit.

There’s a lot of science in there but there is also some very good writing and some excellent fiction.

Mr g: A Novel About Creation

But this brings us to Mr g: A Novel About Creation. Mr. g (small “g”) is a proto-deity some people might mistake for God. He is hanging around the Void with his Aunt and his Uncle (no Father? Oh that’s right: how can a First Cause have a Father? Then again, without a Father, if he has an Aunt and Uncle, then does that mean he has a Mother?) and is bored.

“As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.”

Note that this tells the reader in the first line that Mr g going to tell us a story about what happened, at least as he remembers it. There were no books or stenographers at this time: Mr. g had not even invented Time. But Time is the first thing he creates, unintentionally, and Time leads to Music and soon the empty Void starts to change. Mr. g might have seen all this as a good thing but his Aunt isn’t always in agreement. In fact, when presented with Mr. g’s newest creation, Space, filled with billions and billions of Universes, Aunt Penelope asks Mr. g to make her a chair so she can finally sit down. It was Mr. g’s first material creation.

As you might imagine, the Creation continues, Matter is created, Life is created, Free Will is questioned, Religion is dealt with, Good and Evil present themselves, and Aunt Penelope gets a new dress. The important point  this novel makes, however, is that Mr. g started the Creation of the entire universe (not just some garden in a small corner of an insignificant planet) by developing a few simple rules and later by augmenting them with what he called Quantum physics (conveniently, we still use the same term). The idea was that the created universe would obey the laws (of physics?) and be tweaked by the underlying Quantum. What Mr. g discovered was that the creation worked fine following the rules and didn’t need looking after since the rules were all that was necessary to have the universe grow and develop Life.

But Mr. g still struggles with the urge to know everything and control everything: after all, it was his project.

It should be noted that Mr. g (and a shady character named Belhor who shows up with his satanic  “dog” Baphomet) is a skilled mathematician and can calculate enormous numbers involving sub-atomic events without resorting to an early Bowmar Brain. In some of these episodes of unimaginable numbers, I suspect Lightman is suggesting that individual knowledge and control of everything going on in the universe is unlikely and probably believed only by people who can’t even multiply three-digit numbers in their head.

Mr gOne thing that is suggested in the trial and error method Mr. g uses to create the universe is that he is quick to destroy experiments and variations that are not working to his satisfaction (even when he is just feeling petulant and destructive). The suggestion I received from this is that true-believers should be thankful to their god for not smearing them on his boot-heel instead of celebrating their creation by a god who was bored and just wanted something different to happen in his boring life.

Reading Mr g you realize early on that it is impossible to fully embrace the fiction and quickly allow for breaks in the mythical treatment, like Aunt Penelope getting a chair to sit on in the Void, but it’s still both fun and thought provoking as you read along. A good question to think about is how well Alan Lightman develops this fantastic fiction, albeit based on hard-science, and then compare it to the fiction developed in the first chapter of the Bible. Which one is more plausible?

How does it all turn out? Well, don’t count on cashing in your Celestial life-insurance … still, Aunt Penelope does get a new dress.

Addendum

In his notes Alan Lightman acknowledges that some elements of his novel should not suggest that Mr. g (or God) would do things a certain way, but that it’s easier for humans to understand something more familiar to them (like Base-10 numbers). This is the same theory that had German soldiers speaking English in the Hollywood movies. He also points out that he is working with the physics and the knowledge of the universe that existed at the time he was writing. I found this interesting since I was watching a symposium on the Holographic theory of the universe that suggested there may be a layer of physical laws underneath what is our current base of quantum physics.

Is the universe just a hologram? The mathematics suggest it just might be. Stephen Hawking says, “Rubbish.”

By the way, if you subscribe to the First Cause theory, it’s just as likely that the Great Pumpkin is the First Cause as it is to point to your God, excluding all others. It’s all fiction.

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