Meeting Two Giants in Cosmology

March 15, 2015, by Suzanne

The Tucson Festival of Books is this weekend, and yesterday, my daughter Theresa​, my friend Ed​, and I were privileged to be in the audience to hear Professor Alan Lightman​, MIT astrophysicist, cosmologist, and popular author, speak on his recent book “The Accidental Universe“. We did not realize until we were seated that CSPAN’s BookTV was there to record the event. The camera is behind us, and you can clearly see the backs of our heads, mid-audience.

It was a fascinating talk, in which Dr. Lightman, citing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity among other research, boiled down cosmology and all that astrophysics has to offer as just two choices, each of which presented what he called “the delicious irony” – that both views, whether it was “intelligent design” or a “multiverse” roll of the dice in which we are confined to observing only our own universe out of an infinite number of random others, require a leap of “faith”.    “The Accidental Universe” is the title essay in his book, which contains another essay, “The Temporary Universe”, which he also discussed quite extensively, trying to come to grips with aging and death.

Ed and I were further privileged to be able to be part of the short audience question & answer period.  Ed appears at about time mark 43:40, and I appear at about time mark 49:30.  Mine was a question that I had been pondering for years, on the very meaning of death, to which I believe I have an answer.   I was surprised to hear an audible gasp from the audience, although at first listen, it does not seem to have been caught by the microphones.  In all the history of human philosophy and religion, I do not believe I am the first to propose this answer to this question, but neither did I expect to surprise or stump Professor Alan Lightman.

I had read Lightman’s book, “Einstein’s Dreams”, and my daughter, a long time fan of Lightman’s, owned all of his books that we knew of, and had them with her in her backpack. We bought his two most recent books, “The Accidental Universe” and “The Screening Room”, and after the talk, of course we joined the line to have him sign all of them.  My daughter had a much more extended conversation with him at the book signing, even getting on the end of the line again, so that she could have a bit more unhurried time with him, and she’s still a fan of his, for having presented us with his fascinating perspectives, but as a longtime avid reader of many great thinkers, scientists, dreamers, and writers, she was disappointed that he did not seem as agile at skipping through even more alternate perspectives than he himself had presented in his two books “Einstein’s Dreams” and “The Accidental Universe”, beautiful as they are.

At one point, Dr. Lightman was overheard to make the comment that eventually, “the community” (the world community?) will settle on an accepted view of the universe and our place in it.   But that really is the saddest irony.  There is not enough time in one lifetime to read all the books on all science and on all the perspectives on humanity’s place in the cosmos, for one person to do such a thing, much less have everybody do it.

And amazingly, just a couple of hours later, we met another astrophysicist and cosmologist, Professor Emeritus Dr. William G. Tifft, of the University of Arizona Steward Observatory, at the same book festival in the exhibition tents with his book, “Redshift, Key to Cosmology“, which discusses observed flaws in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the underpinnings of the general world of cosmology.  Dr. Tifft, as absorbed as he is in his own research and work, had never heard of Dr. Lightman.   I was shocked to find this out when I asked him why he hadn’t scheduled himself to speak immediately following Dr. Lightman’s talk.  Of course I bought Dr. Tifft’s book, too, and asked him to sign it.   When I got home and cracked open Redshift, I was thrilled by the new-to-me concept of the observed quantized redshift of the galaxies, and that there were more possibilities than the binary choice (“which faith would you prefer?”) Dr. Lightman had presented.

Both books, “The Accidental Universe” and “Redshift, Key to Cosmology” were released within a month of each other, in the fall of 2014.

Cosmology is heating up!

People still want to know.  And let’s be very careful not to confuse that How and Why are two different questions… that could possibly answer each other.