One of my favorite books from last year, Alan Lightman’s comic and philosophical Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, has been out in paperback for a while but I forgot to re-post my review. But since I referred to it in class yesterday, I figure now is as good as time as any…
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." ---Genesis 1:1-2
"As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.
“Not much was happening at that time. 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. And if you tried to picture wind or stars or water, you could not give form or texture to your notions."---from Mr g by Alan Lightman.
Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g is a small book.
Not as heavy as a hymnal. Not as compact as missalette. Not as thick as my edition of the New Revised Bible. It’s slightly bigger than my grandfather’s collection of Emerson’s essays he won in high school. Slightly larger than a primer on relativity my father saved from college and that I tried to read in eighth grade and gave up on less than a third of the way through, sadly convinced that my future did not lie in the sciences.
A hymnal, a prayer book, scripture, the musings of a transcendentalist sage, a scientific text. That’s the power of suggestion driving these comparisons. I could as easily and accurately say it’s the size of those old Modern Library editions of the classics but the resonances aren’t there. Mr g is a delightful tour de force about the creation of the universe as told by the creator himself. Ontology, cosmology, theology, philosophy, quantum physics, these are the subjects under discussion and the objects of jokes.
I entered the new universe and took stock. Matter. At that moment [the universe] contained only pure energy. But my two symmetry laws already guaranteed that matter could be created from energy---in fact, required it---so all I needed to do was specify the parameters of a few basic particles. This one spins this much, that one spins that much, this one responds to this force, that one to that force, and so on and so forth. Done.
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 potentiality for eons of time and was finally given the opportunity to exist. Electrons and muons and taus, top quarks and bottom quarks, squarks, gravitrons, photons, neutrinos and neutralinos, gluons, W and Z bosons, axions, photinos, winos, and zinos. And with matter, of course, came antimatter: positrons, antimuons, anti quarks, et cetera and anti et cetera.
At every point in space, the hillocks and basins of energy gushed forth with matter. Some of this matter instantly annihilated with antimatter to create energy again, which in turn spit forth new matter, so that there was a continual give and take between the two. Energy begat matter which begat energy which begat matter. It was a spectacle.
Religion and science get delightfully mixed up in Mr g. Lightman mischievously plays games with the expectations of believers and skeptics, which is part of the fun but not the point. Mr g is a novel, a story, then, about a character in conflict. Remember the three conflicts from high school English class? Man against God, Man against Nature, Man against himself. All three are at issue in Mr g, with the second two being versions of the first, since Nature and Man are extensions of their creator---or reflections of his mind, he’s not sure. The conflicts are existential and internal, as God has to face the questions about his own existence. What is he doing? What has he done? Why has he done it? Is he glad that he’s created the universe? Did he do a good thing?
The photons in particular sometimes took the form of an oscillating wave of electrical and magnetic energy. I decided to call such a thing “light.” Where photons flew about in abundance and collided with other matter, there was light. Where photons were absent, there was darkness. Thus, when I created matter and energy, I also created darkness and light, and I decided that these things were good, although I was not sure at the moment what they were good for.
The opening chapters parallel and allude to the creation story in Genesis, the first creation story, the one told in Genesis 1, the one that can be read as a poetical summary of the history of the creation as science has come to lay it out for us, not the fable featuring Adam and Eve in Chapter 2. God, pausing after each step, looks upon his day’s work and sees that it is good. But Lightman’s Mr g is not the Biblical God. This is God as he might be if he created the universe according to the laws of physics and mathematics we know underlie and give order to the whole ball of wax and which many people see as making a creator unnecessary. He looks upon his works and is pleased to see that they…work. And that they work without him, without his having to continually “tinker” with them.
Bound by causal necessities, requiring not a single touchup or tinker from me, events…proceeded on their own with an impressive inevitability. As the universe continued to expand, its material contents cooled further and further. The brilliant displays of light slowly dimmed. And the attractive force of gravity began to dominate and reshape the terrain. Whereas before, small condensations of matter would quickly evaporate under the high heat, now they grew larger and denser. Lumps of material, most of it hydrogen gas, began to condense here and there. In the past history of the universe, matter had been rather evenly spread about, but now there were ridges and valleys, arches, amorphous aggregations, all bunching themselves up into ever denser bulges as each particle of mass gravitationally attracted other particles. The smooth, almost fluid topography of matter before had been beautiful, but these architectural constructions were even more beautiful. There were linear filaments. There were sheets. There were hollowed-out spherical cavities. There were ellipsoids and spheroids and topological hyberboloids. Great clouds of hydrogen gas swirled and flattened and spun out spiral wisps and trails. And within these spinning galaxies of matter, smaller knots of gas formed, collapsed on themselves, and grew hotter and denser---in opposite fashion to the rest of the universe, which was thinning and cooling.
Lightman’s God is a scientist. I kept picturing him as looking like the scientists in Sidney Harris’ cartoons, a little younger and thinner, but just as rumpled and with the same air of distraction, prematurely balding and wearing a turtleneck under his sport coat with patches on the elbows, one hand digging into his jacket pocket to fumble nervously and abstractedly with a piece of chalk. Creation is an experiment that’s going well, a theory that’s proving itself. But he doesn’t know if it’s good, because, for one thing, good is besides the point---beautiful is the point and beauty is a result of function, of the math being right---and for another, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, specifically, with it or to it or because of it. He knows what could happen and what’s likely to happen, because everything in it will follow the rules he put in place at the outset. But because one of the things he’s created is quantum physics, probable variations are nearly infinite to the point that they might as well be infinite---it’s not worth the effort to foresee and follow them all to their logical ends to figure out which one will definitely come about. Lightman’s God is not omniscient because omniscience is a headache and a colossal waste of the divine’s time.
So the act of creating leaves him wistful and whenever he’s faced with an outcome he’s always left wondering if that was the best outcome. When looking upon his creation, he can’t help asking himself, Did I do that right? and Might I have done it better?
And he has another problem. The act of creation has changed him in ways he can’t quite put his finger on. It’s changed his aunt and uncle too---Yes, God has an aunt and uncle. No mother or father or other relatives, and definitely no son. It’s not explained where they came from. They just seem to have always been, like Mr g himself. They aren’t gods themselves but they are supreme intelligences and they are immortal. They can’t create but they can suggest. They can advise. They can nag and wheedle. And he respects them and defers, sometimes, to their judgment. He’s not sure exactly how they’ve changed, except that they seem to have become more themselves. And that seems to be the case with him too. He is aware of himself as a self, which vexes him with the question of what that means? What is he supposed to do about being him?
More irksome is the way others take it upon himself to tell him. His aunt and uncle. A certain stranger who strolls into the Void apparently uninvited. All of the intelligent animate matter in the universe that evolved to the point of being aware of itself as a self. That last group, made up of trillions of beings, in becoming aware of itself has become aware of something else---it dies. And it objects to this.
All those beings seem to think Mr g goofed when he didn’t make them immortal and they spend a lot of time and energy explaining that mistake or explaining it away to themselves---and to him, although they don’t know it’s him they’re talking to. Their minds aren’t big enough to comprehend him, so they’ve invented scaled down and simplified versions of him to talk to. Which is to say they’ve invented religion to comfort themselves. Mr g understands but he resents, mildly, their attempts to define him because it makes him feel defined and responsible.
Mr g creates many universes right off the bat. When he creates quantum physics billions more pop into existence. But at his aunt’s urging he decides to concentrate on one at a time and so he and the book focus on just that one. The thing is we don’t know if that one is this one. We don’t know if it’s ours. All we know is that it is built on---built out of---the same laws of physics and mathematics as ours.
Because of those rules, similarities, recapitulations, and distinctions without differences are bound to occur and do occur over and over again. The universe teems with intelligent creatures very much like us---and with intelligent creature very much not like us---but Mr g never deals with any creatures who might actually be us or, if this is our universe, to be aware that there is an us. Given all he has to look at, all there is to capture his attention, there’s a good chance he hasn’t noticed us and never will. In fact, there’s a chance that we came into being, lived out our collective lives as a species, and died off without his ever knowing we were here. Mr g, being immortal and able to exist outside of time, to an extent, experiences time very differently than his creations. Eons can pass while he’s walking up a single flight of stairs. He steps out of the universe for what to him is just a quick moment and when he returns whole star systems have winked into and out of existence. What this means is that if we are “here”---or were here---it doesn’t or didn’t matter to Mr g because we didn’t or can’t catch his attention.
This, of course, is the big and key difference between religion and science, between Genesis 2 and the Big Bang theory. Science tells us that the universe wasn’t created with us in mind. We are far from the point. The universe existed and went about the business of continuing its existence for billions of years without us and it will go on about its business and working its way towards its extinction for billions more years after we’re gone. If there is a God, what does that tell us about him and about us?
The intelligent self-aware animate material beings want more. They pray. They plead with him, flatter him, excoriate him. That he never answers adds to their fear and their sorrow. Their evanescence breaks their hearts. His indifference drives them to despair.
Mr g feels accused of creating their sorrow. He objects. It’s the nature of matter to decay and he expects intelligent matter to understand and accept that. Still, he can’t help feeling sorry for his creatures and and he concedes that he may have made a mistake, at least in not foreseeing the problem. Like I said, he feels responsible and this presents him with a temptation. Yes, God is tempted. He’s tempted to interfere.
He resists. Interfering would violate his rules. It would destroy the beauty of the cosmos that is the result of those rules at work. It would cause a mess. And it would be arbitrary and random.
This is grossly and cruelly unfair. Why him and not her. Why you and not me? Why us and not them?
Because I felt like it? Because it amused me? Because I did the divine equivalent of rolling dice?
Mr g does not play dice with the universe.
That’s the devil’s game.
That stranger I mentioned, he’s the devil, maybe. Not the devil we know as Lucifer. And definitely not Satan. He’s more like the adversary from the Book of Job who tempts Yahweh into testing Job. He seems to appear out of nowhere, introducing himself to Mr g by the name of Belhor.
Belhor, Lightman tells us in a note at the end of the book, was a demon from Hebrew and Christian mythology who also went by the names of Beliar, Baalial, and Belial.
The novel’s Belhor isn’t very demon-like. In fact, he’s rather personable, even charming. And he cuts an attractive figure, if you can overlook his habit of growing taller and skinnier with each appearance. He stretches out and thins out like a ribbon unspooling in a breeze. He weaves and wafts about the Void. A good description of his motions and manner would be, although Lightman doesn’t use it, serpentine.
Actually, rather than having biblical antecedents, Belhor seemed like a figure out Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach or Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Actually, the whole book reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth, in tone, in its playfulness, in its calm acceptance of its own surreality.
There’s more than a touch of Alice in Wonderland too, although I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading for children, even precocious ones who can handle the math.
We don’t know how Mr g’s aunt and uncle came into existence, but we can make a guess as to how Belhor got here. Mr g tells us that when he created quantum physics
…all objects---even though objects at that point existed only in my mind---billowed out and swelled into a haze of indefinite position. All certainties changed into probabilities, and my thoughts bifurcated into dualities: yes and no, brittle and supple, on and off. Henceforth, things could be hither and yon at the same time. The One became Many.
Since Mr g is in essence a product of his own thought, the same thing happened to him, he bifurcated into a duality. Belhor is able to tempt Mr g because he is Mr g or he’s implied by him, the way on is implied by off. Belhor likes to wander about the universe, getting involved.
Belhor drops obvious hints that is involvement is often malicious and he enjoys causing trouble and pain. But of course he’s bifurcated too and implies his own opposite. If he can interfere for the worse, why can’t Mr g interfere for the better? Why won’t Mr g interfere for the better, Belhor asks. Why won’t he step in and undo Belhor’s mischief? Is he heartless? Is he cruel? Does he approve of what Belhor has been up to? Does he simply not care?
Belhor is clever, though. His method of temptation, which you’d think would be too blatant to fool God, is reverse psychology. He implores Mr g to promise not to interfere.
Mr g isn’t heartless or callous. He’s just by inclination, by temperament, by necessity, and on principle detached. Finally, though, the temptation to involve himself grows strong enough that he brings his attention to bear on one of his intelligent creations, a girl who is sinking into a life of remorse and despair because of a small crime hunger and poverty forced her to commit. This girl, by the way, may be human, biologically---although she may not. Mr g doesn’t describe her in detail. Girl might just be his word for a young female of any self-aware collection of animate matter. She appears to be bipedal and have opposable thumbs. Whatever she is, though, she isn’t an earthling. She lives in a star system that has only three planets. Still, she is human in her feelings and in having a heart that is breaking. And Mr g is tempted to help her. The tempter this time, however isn’t Belhor.
Do something for her, Mr g’s uncle pleads. Mr g’s uncle is more sympathetic and far more sentimental than Mr g.
Mr g is at a loss. What should he do?
Take away her suffering, says his uncle. Give her life meaning. Let her see herself as mattering.
Make her immortal.
Make them all immortal.
Or at least give them souls that are immortal.
Along with being a novelist of note, Lightman is a physicist on the faculty at MIT. But as far as I can tell, your knowledge of math and physics doesn’t have to be extensive or very sophisticated in order for you to enjoy what Lightman’s up to and follow along. But then I don’t know how much I know. My transcript contains only one college course in introductory physics and another in astronomy. But Pop Mannion started out as a physicist before he moved over to computer science and then veered off into politics, so I grew up hearing this stuff discussed over dinner and trying to read books Pop liked and said were probably not too far over my head---sometimes I succeeded. And I’ve kept that up. Routinely I impress myself by almost understanding popular works of science journalism and books like Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here and Chad Orzell’s How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and its soon to be published sequel How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. So I’d say a (not very deep) grounding in college-level physics and cosmology and a habit of watching Nova and shows like Through the Wormhole would be enough. But the science writer Tom Levenson, who is Lightman’s colleague at MIT and a big fan of Mr g has assured me that a good high school level physics course will do the trick.
You don’t need any specialized course work to appreciate that Mr g is beautifully written. Just a good ear and wide-open inner eye.
I did not tell Uncle and Aunt about all of my visits…Or of the many things I saw. Once I hovered invisibly in a city that arched over a hill. The planet was a one of a dozen orbiting an ordinary star, the smallest planet in the system. It was a quiet world. Oceans and winds made scarcely a sound. People spoke to each other only in whispers. I floated above the city and looked down at its streets and inhabitants. Corners of buildings rusted in the air, billows of steam rose from underground canals. I spotted two men passing each other on a crowded walkway. Complete strangers. In the eight million beings living in the city, these two had never met before, never chanced to find themselves in the same place at the same time. A common enough occurrence in a city of millions. As these two moved past, they greeted each other, just a simple greeting. A remark about the sun in the sky. One of them said something else to the other, they exchanged smiles, and then the moment was gone. What an extraordinary event! No one noticed but me. What an extraordinary event! Two men who had never seen each other before and would likely not see each other again. But their sincerity and sweetness, their sharing an instant in a fleeting life. It was almost as if a secret passed between them. Was this some kind of love? I wanted to follow them, to touch them, to tell them of my happiness. I wanted to whisper to them, “This is it, this is it.”