07 March, 2012

Mr g by Alan Lightman

Writing good fiction is hard. Writing good science is even harder. From what I've come across over the years, science-based fiction (not science fiction) is a rare talent to be praised. Mr Lightman began his career as a physicist, specializing in astrophysics, and for twenty years, held a distinguished career in astronomy through MIT.

Then he started writing. With previous (and somewhat esoteric) work such as Einstein's Dreams and Good Benito, Lightman's talents have come to lay in weaving descriptive prose with a scientist's curious and detailed view of the Universe.

Which brings us to Mr g.The unnamed narrator, at the beginning of the book,  wakes up from a very long nap and decides to create a universe. In this story of Creation as told from the perspective of the Creator, we can see the development of geometric, scientific, mathematical, and physical ideas as the narrator builds concepts such as space and time from the infinite nothingness of the Void, where he lives with his argumentative aunt and uncle. The creator is at his core a curious personality, learning by trial-and-error as he builds, and rebuilds universes of varying dimension, geometries, logical consistences, and stability. He loves to watch his creations simply grow and change, and see how they react to stimuli, such as introduction of "organizational principles" and laws of physics.

His favorite project begins with Aalam-104729 (the name originates with His Uncle Deva's penchant for creative naming, and the 10,000th prime number, so he doesn't lose track of it amid the billions of other universes), which His Aunt Penelope randomly selects for him, encouraging that He "take His time with this one, and not rush into things." As Mr g (He is never actually referred to as such in the book, but I'm running out of things to call Him) launches Aalam-104729 by enriching it with symmetry concepts, a simple three dimensions of space, physical laws, and finally matter, which erupts in a fantastic explosion, He is delighted to simply watch his creation grow.

As a strict non-interventionist, the narrator is highly concerned with proper cause-and-effect, in which His own actions should not meddle with the internal workings as the universe unfolds of its own accord, and in a beautiful chaos, developing elementary particles, stars, planets, and eventually biology. His foil, however, has a somewhat more active philosophy. Soon after the creation of Aalam-104729, the tall, whip-smart, and elusive Belhor arrives with an interest in the new creation. While not "the devil" per se, Belhor represents Mr g's intellectual equal, who often serves as a balancing sounding board for ideas concerning thornier issues when conscious life arises, such as morality, and the overarching philosophy of a "disinterested" god who allows beings to suffer.

Perhaps the most compelling moral discussion in the novel is the narrator's discussion with His uncle, who is lobbying for the creation of an immortal soul for conscious beings; the creator is hesitant, well-knowing that a mind from the material universe would not be able to comprehend the Void beyond existence. With input from Belhor, and Uncle Deva, the idea of the beings having an actual connection beyond their universe is a heavy decision for the creator.

While being an exceptionally quick read, Lightman's work weaves together concepts ranging wide from mathematics, science, and philosophy, as taken by someone who has very good reason to consider the impacts of each of His ideas. The science, form the Big Bang to the End, is wonderfully expressed in the text as we read the life story of the universe, and its creator's pure love for all that it is. This is an excellent read for anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy or science, with a shift of perspective to the Outside which only a deity could appreciate