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The History of The Universe – Best Told Through Fiction?

March 29th, 2012 - written by Brian Utley

Well it would have to be.  Right?  There are plenty of stories about the history of life, history of civilizations, history of the earth.  Some more accurate than others…  But the story of the creation of The Universe would need to be told by someone who was there for it.  And who could be there before they themselves were created? (see: Paradox)
Few people would be talented enough or have the necessary understanding of the universe and its laws to attempt that story.  But one of them is Alan Lightman, physicist and best-selling novelist.  Now a professor at MIT where he teaches physics, his first love, and writing, his second.  Among my favorite authors, Lightman can entwine whimsical physics and mind-broadening narratives like no other writer today.

There are many things that have brought me a sense of awe.  Watching my first child being born, standing in front of Michelangelo’s David, watching the sun rise on Lake Como from a train window, the first time I saw a Major League Baseball field, surfing dawn patrol with the sea otters and dolphins off Capitola, reading Einstein’s Dreams….  More about Einstein’s Dreams later.  This is about Mr g. the guy (or The Guy) who was there before it all.  And this is about Lightman, who is an author that enables awe and who I’ll describe like this:

Take Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.  Then put it away.  Then buy the Cliffs Notes. Because honestly, if you understood it, or say you did, I’d nod my head and later that evening chuckle a little to myself at your expense as I turn out the light.  Because you can’t…. so don’t.  So, take the abridged version of that, add a tablespoon of Horton Hears A Who, two cups of Steinbeck, three ounces of that crazy-ass science teacher from jr. high, and if you have the means, Richard Feynman as a 13 y/o.  Throw it all together and you’d have Lightman’s A Sense of The Mysterious.  An approachable, understandable, and engaging collection of essays about physics (the ubiquitous and oft misunderstood quantum version as well) and the discoveries of everything awesome.  If The Elegant Universe is a barefoot trek with no food through the Sahara, A Sense of The Mysterious is a limosine ride to a hillside ristorante in Tuscany.

So if quantum physics is what you’re after, and you’re smart enough to say you didn’t understand The Elegant Universe, start with A Sense of The Mysterious.  Once your done, see it all in action.  Theories are great, but that’s all they are.  Einstein’s Dreams is a book that puts theories of time and space into action, into stories that you and I can wrap our heads around.  Great books are often hailed as “page-turners”.  Not Einstein’s Dreams.  Einstein’s Dreams is great because the last thing you want to do is get to the last page.  You don’t want to turn the page, you want to reread each page over and over.  You want to read a page and put the book down, look up at the ceiling with a euphoric smile and ask your brain to dissect what you have just read by asking the daydream-inducing question of “what if?”  What if there was a center of time, a place you could go where time stopped, time moving slower the closer you get and with that in mind would you ever get there?  What if time was circular with no end and no beginning with no knowledge of your repeating existence?  What if time could be captured and relived at will, and on and on, each story answering a sliver of “what if” while at the same time creating the curiousity in you to create your own “what if’s” with your imagination.  When someone asks you if you liked the book, imagine answering with a smile fit for a knowing shaaman and the response, “I couldn’t stop putting it down”.

“Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but is noble to live life and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”
― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

a selection of quotes from Einstein’s Dreams here.

With that in mind, I discovered Lightman had slipped one past me.  A new book.  A history of the universe, a novel.  Written by mr. g. himself, who existed before time and space, who existed only in the void.  And one day he was bored.  So he created a universe.  Then another and another.  Then he grew more curious and created more things, he created laws.  Then they failed and he created more universes and more laws until he got them right.  Or so he thought.

The stories we have now of The Universe suddenly became silly and minimalist.  Most stories of the Universe and our place in it start with the creation of the Universe, then the creation of Earth, then life, then the inevitable destruction of Earth and then it stops.  In some cases it continues and The Universe just… peeters out.  Being a great storyteller, Lightman has a grander scope.  Being a great theoretical physicist, he does it with reality-checking wonder and awe.  His version of The Universe doesn’t feature Earth or mankind as the subject with the leading role.  I wouldn’t even say Earth, or our existence, would warrant a cameo label.  He presents perspective.

There is something happening that is much bigger than we’re informed of.  Something much more profound and awe-inspiring than we’re capable of comprehending.  We’ve had Carl Sagan and we still have Hubble.  We have the Bible and we’ve had Einstein.  We have quantum physics with worm holes and Entanglement and string theory and multiple dimensions where versions of us are making an infinite number of different decisions with different outcomes.  But we also have sunrises and marble statues and crying babies.  And these all have their special place in The Cosmos.  And somehow, with one eye on infinity and another on now, Lightman is able to give our story here on earth and here in our homes meaning and depth and profundity by unveiling to us how fleeting our time is here.  But that’s not the book’s purpose, it’s merely a byproduct.  How someone could make me feel so large and important by showing me just how small and insignificant I am is beyond me.  But Lightman does it.  And he does it with wit and humor and comprehensible theoretical physics and he did it by putting me in my place, showing me where I am, where I came from, and inevitably where I’ll go.  And that story, when the final word is written about us all, will also be awe-inspring.

What has been your most awe-inspiring moment?

The History of The Universe – Best Told Through Fiction?

2012, Book Thoughts, Brian Utley

  1. March 30th, 2012 at 11:42 | #1

    Nice piece, buddy, glad to see you back in the saddle, really liked this one, a lot.

  2. April 1st, 2012 at 04:58 | #2

    Hi Brian,
    Telling the story of the history of the Universe through fiction is exactly the aim of my series of novels Time Crystal. The first volume, The Cosmic Monopole, is available on Kindle and other eReaders. If you’d like a review copy I’d be delighted to send you one. Please let me know what format you require.

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