Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Mr. G / Alan Lightman
New York: Pantheon, c2012.
This latest book by Lightman, physicist and novelist, combines the ideas of quantum physics with the concept of divinity in the human imagination. It had its charms, even while not winning me over as completely as, say, Einstein's Dreams, still my favourite of his works. Think of this as a creation myth infused with quantum physics.
Mr. G is, in fact, God. Of sorts. He exists formless and shapeless in the Void, a place outside of human reckoning. With him are Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope, a comic duo who somehow guide and direct Mr. G when he decides it is time to create something -- one universe, or many. Although I had a few reservations about these three characters at times, I found Aunt Penelope's injunction to Mr. G that he just needs to slow down rather amusing. "“You shouldn’t do things with such haste,” she says. “You rush into things. Slow down. Take your time with this project.”
Mr. G puzzles over how to create a self-contained universe...what should the rules be? Should he be involved with its development or simply observe as it develops according to his primary quantum rules? He turns out to be a rather hands-off creator, putting the universe down while he wanders off for a walk through the Void, or goes for a nap, and finds upon his return that eons have passed within the Universe.
Lightman has stated that he is an atheist who doesn't believe in the idea of a creator -- but thinks that the human search for meaning and transcendence still adds value to our existence. This book takes both of those positions and combines them into an intellectual experience, with many scientific rules being explained and explored as Mr. G ponders how to set up the universe. Time, dark matter, the Big Bang, even chemical interactions that form life, are all discussed and made comprehensible through story. But, Mr. G also says about the self-aware life forms which develop on their own that “I admire their dreams of immortality. It is noble to try to imagine the unattainable”. Lightman sees scientific rules as the basis for life, rules which explain everything quite effectively. But the human search for transcendent meaning is also a part of life which won't go away, and he acknowledges the beauty inherent in that search.
The duality in this book between science and religious feeling perhaps reflects the idea that when something is created, so is its opposite: light/dark, matter/antimatter, Creator/Destroyer. Mr. G encounters a shadowy figure in the Void named Belhor, who questions him about his purpose in creating a universe and what he is going to do about it. When Mr. G created something new, he also brought into being this annihilator of Being.
I found this a dense, intellectual read, even with the humour and cleverness. The style reminded me strongly of Saramago, very strongly actually -- at times I felt I could nearly hear Saramago himself. It is a novel of ideas rather than plot or character, but was also a satisfying approach to this idea of our need for a "first cause". As Mr. G says after his universe has developed somewhat, "How was it possible that something I'd created from my own being was now larger than my being? Is it possible that the created can create its creator?"
If you like Lightman's work already, or if you are looking for an unusual read, try this.