Popova on Lightman

Just when I get beyond my fear of falling into a black hole, along comes Maria Popova to throw me back into a cosmic tailspin.

In the title essay of his excellent The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, which also gave us this beautiful meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman points to fine-tuning — the notion that the basic forces propelling our universe appear to be fine-tuned in such a way as to make the existence of life possible — as a centerpiece of how modern scientists have attempted to answer these age-old question [of why our world exists and what nothing is].

So far so good. Here’s where I start to get uneasy:

The most compelling example of fine-tuning is dark energy — an invisible and unexpected cosmological force that hides in empty space and works against the universe’s slowing expansion, a sort of “cosmic accelerator pedal” that is speeding up its expansion and causing galaxies to drift away from one another.

Don’t… like… dark… energy… (takes deep breath). Too much is unexplained! And having its foot on the accelerator pedal… well, that just seems malicious to me. Things fall apart! The center does not hold! And the universe is stuffed with something we don’t understand!

Popova quotes Lightman:

On one thing most physicists agree. If the amount of dark energy in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, then life could never have emerged. A little larger, and the universe would have accelerated so rapidly that matter in the young universe could never have pulled itself together to form stars and hence complex atoms made in stars. And, going into negative values of dark energy, a little smaller and the universe would have decelerated so rapidly that it would have recollapsed before there was time to form even the simplest atoms.

Huh. Maybe I’ll read the Lightman book, which Popova praises to the, ahem, skies:

[E]xquisitely mind-bending read in its entirety, the kind that will leave you at once educated and disoriented, but above all able to embrace and celebrate the profound uncertainty that propels rather than hinders human knowledge.

Certainly a ringing endorsement from one of my favorite ringing endorsementers.

Then again, just look at that title. The accidental universe? The world I thought I knew? No thanks!

Certainty is hard to come by in this world, Mr. Lightman. I’ll take my share and get out.

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