- - Friday, March 30, 2012

By Alan Lightman
Pantheon Books, $24.95, 214 pages

In the beginning, there are these words, “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” From time immemorial, writers, like poets and painters, have tried to play God. Now Alan Lightman, author of the best-seller “Einstein’s Brain” and a variety of other fine books, goes them one better by being God, at least in the form of his narrator.

Until he - the Almighty, not Mr. Lightman - got his big idea, there was just Aunt Penelope, her husband, Uncle Deva, and their nephew Mr g (that’s with no period, please, and a lowercase “g,” showing respect). Part of the fun is that Mr. Lightman never deigns to explain how - or why - Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva are part of the cast. But, as foils, they serve a humanizing function, often raising the very point the reader wants to raise.

The three of them have lived in “the Void” in perfect contentment for eons. “Not much was happening at that time,” Mr g reports. “As a matter of fact, time didn’t exist. Nor space. When you looked out into the Void, you were really looking at nothing more than your own thought. … Practically everything slept in an infinite torpor of potentiality. I knew I could make whatever I wanted. That was the problem.”

So Mr g makes his first universe, which He calls Aalam [a Muslim name for universe]-104729. And then the fun, or at least the complications, start. Once he realizes that he has created time, other things start to happen. After that come space and matter. And after that comes a visitor named Belhor, who is accompanied by an unpleasant little beast called Baphomet.

The Almighty has met his opposite number, and the author has cleverly introduced an ongoing dialogue between good and evil, even though devil and Satan are never used. As presented, Mr g is extremely likable. No big surprise there, but then so is Belhor, who, at a late point in the book gives g a guided tour of his castle (in case you were still in doubt about Belhor’s identity, they have to go way down to get there). While the Castle Farunder is furnished magnificently, Mr g’s residence remains the “simple” void, which suggests Mr. Lightman might be making an ironic comment about the wages of sin.

Eventually, Mr g has to decide whether or not to create animate matter, such as sentient beings, and if and when he does, he will have to deal with the consequences. The devil - excuse me, Belhor - lobbies for letting people make their own choices, good or bad, and the Almighty hesitates.

That opens the door for the author to have all sorts of fun regarding the relative merits and demerits of predestination, determinism, theism and even good old chaos and anarchy. This is college bull sessionry raised to a higher theological/philosophical point. Mr g all but nods off after a tiring (given the questionable premise that a supreme being can tire) intellectual sparring session with Belhor.

“The Void is nearly asleep. There I can see Aunt and Uncle, sleeping, sleeping, and they diminish to two dancing dots, dancing a waltz that moves slower and slower. How long will they sleep? Eons. And Belhor sleeps in his castle. But the new universe does not sleep. It unwinds and evolves, it builds and destructs, it sings and it sings and it spins to the future.”

The beautiful writing throughout this little gem of a book is an Alan Lightman trademark. Discussing the creation of matter, he writes, “Immediately, matter appeared! In fact, matter exploded. Matter burst into being with a vengeance, as if it had been languishing in a frustrated state of being for eons of time and was finally given the opportunity to exist. … At every point of space, the hillocks and basins of energy gushed forth with matter. … [E]nergy begat matter which begat energy which begat matter. It was a spectacle.”

Mr. Lightman, a poet, a novelist and a theoretical physicist - he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in both science and the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it shows - must have had a lot of fun writing this delightful book. And he’s not just kidding around: In a brief note at the end, he tells us that all the science, all “the physical creation of matter and energy, galaxies, stars, and planets, and the emergence of life follow the best current data in physics, astronomy, and biology. All quantitative discussion of various cosmic events is scientifically accurate.”

So what we have here is not only good writing, but also, Mr. Lightman assures the reader, good science. That combination may be enough to make students, and their, ah, material antecedents, actually enjoy science.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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