From the acclaimed author of Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of meditative essays on the possibilities—and impossibilities—of nothingness and infinity, and how our place in the cosmos falls somewhere in between
Can space be divided into smaller and smaller units, ad infinitum? Does space extend to larger and larger regions, on and on to infinity? Is consciousness reducible to the material brain and its neurons? What was the origin of life, and can biologists create life from scratch in the lab?
Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, whom The Washington Post has called “the poet laureate of science writers,” explores these questions and more—from the anatomy of a smile to the capriciousness of memory to the specialness of life in the universe to what came before the Big Bang.
Probable Impossibilities is a deeply engaged consideration of what we know of the universe, of life and the mind, and of things vastly larger and smaller than ourselves.
Lightman (Einstein's Dreams), a physicist and humanities professor at MIT, returns with a wide-ranging collection of 17 essays that explore the place of humans in the cosmos. The entries cover the nature of infinity, the origin of the universe, the "project to create life from nonlife," and the meaning of consciousness. In "What Came Before the Big Bang?" Lightman addresses the provocative question of whether there must be a relationship between cause and effect, given that "causality can dissolve in the quantum haze of the origin of the universe." In "Cosmic Biocentrism," he wonders whether humans' very existence has any meaning given "life in our universe is a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos." In the face of such questions, Lightman is resolutely upbeat; the scarcity of life in the universe, for example, makes him "feel some ineffable connection to other living things," and he argues that other intelligent beings will share a passion for "making science and art and attempting to take stock and record this cosmic panorama of existence." Lightman's ability to craft moving prose while accessibly explaining complex scientific concepts is a rare gift. This collection is tough to put down.