Chapter 16
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The "Laws" of Nature and Other Theories

Alan Lightman explains why what we understand to be true about the universe may not be true in other universes

December 20, 2011 There are laws, not made by humans but discovered by them, that explain the workings of the universe in perfectly clear, precise terms, notes Memphis native Alan Lightman in a new essay for Harper’s:

The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.

This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

Anyone for whom the word “universal” carries a connotation of comprehensiveness may be dismayed to consider the possible existence of another universe, never mind “an enormous number of universes.” But it’s not merely the stolid or the simple who are troubled by the notion of a “multiverse,” according to Lightman; theoretical physicists are dismayed, too. If there’s more than one universe, and each universe adheres to different rules, then there’s no way for theoretical physicists to figure out the “laws” of the universe at all: “It is as if you walked into a shoe store, had your feet measured, and found that a size 5 would fit you, a size 8 would also fit, and a size 12 would fit equally well,” Lightman notes. “Such wishy-washy results make theoretical physicists extremely unhappy. Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe. According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.”

To read the rest of this provocative essay about the “beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true” by the author of Einstein’s Dreams, click here. Click here to read Maria Browning’s profile of Alan Lightman for Chapter 16, and here to read an excerpt from Screening Room, Lightman’s memoir-in-progress.