Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

This work is lauded as theoretical physics for the layman, but it is no Dummies version. Hawking quickly exhausted any common language and ideas that he and I might have shared, strapped me to the back of his wheelchair, and warped to light speed.  And yet, it really was an enlightening read, and I feel better informed regarding the frontiers of science, at least as it stood 20 years ago. It was especially nice to learn from Stephen Hawking, the late 20th century’s Einstein, and the fact that Hawking overcame so much in his lifetime (a quadriplegic suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease) gives his ideas a courageous flavor. It also helps that the cover art of the 1990 edition totally looks like Hawking is the Emperor in his throne at the last duel between Luke and Darth Vader in The Return Of the Jedi. “Take your weapon. Strike me down! Your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” And I trust this man to escort me “From the Big Bang To Black Holes”? Enough.

I really did appreciate the leap to being able to understand, partially at least, the beginning and end of the horizons of the empirically known universe in 182 pages. To be sure, some parts of the book were…shall we say…a black hole sucking all light of the understanding into the fathomless abyss where Hawking sits alone with the key to the origins and ends of it all. Or maybe he doesn’t. It was intriguing to learn that some of Hawking’s “Eureka!” moments weren’t always the byproduct of complex mathematical procedures, but some occurred spontaneously in rather mundane places and times, such as a conversation with one of his students, or during a bedtime routine. In other words, he fortuitously stumbled upon some of his best ideas like any normal bloke, not always painstakingly exhuming them from the deep, ponderous vaults of trigo-calcu-bra. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and I definitely see good ole’ fashioned creativity and wonder at work in Hawking as he discovered new worlds (and anti-worlds) for his brain to roll around in. I find it hilarious that at one point he found himself so immersed in ‘imaginative physics’ that when he finally reached irreconcilable contrarities, he had to be reminded by one of his students that he was using imaginary time in some of his formulas, which didn’t always work in real time scenarios. And I feel smart again for a couple seconds.

Let it be known, I love having my mind blown. Hawking takes us on the journey of basic physics, but then reaches to the furthest applications of those fundamentals without all the mind-cramping math. He includes only one equation in the book: E = mc (squared), and this is simple enough to understand as he explains the implications of Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity on energy (E), mass (m), and the speed of light (c). The beauty of the whole thing is this: it is beyond me. I had to try to picture the ‘color’ beyond the white pages full of static black symbols. The words had to become events. My mind often transposed the convoluted processes into cartoons; after all, much of it only makes sense as story. How else is anyone supposed to understand what is going on inside a star or an atom? Reality transcends mere words. We transpose the unseen, untouched world into pictures, into analogy, into math, into poetry. In the end, science is fiction, language is myth, math is… music!  I believe Hawking reconciles himself to the metaphysics of physics, even if it is unconsciously, when he states, “It is meaningless to ask: Which is real, “real” or “imaginary” time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”

It is so interesting that so much of this book is now common knowledge at least in outline: The Big Bang, black holes, the variable nature of time and space. It was new depth in decades-old ideas for me as I relearned Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, and quantum mechanics. I also finally understand a little better the nature of light, color, radio/x-ray/gamma rays…and the whole electromagnetic field that these waves wave on; and I can finally grasp the essentials of Super String Theory, which I’ve come to think is just a way to apply the mystery that particles cannot be differentiated from waves. Holistic cosmological evolution is now outlined in my mind more lucidly than it ever has been before. And I certainly know more now than I EVER wanted to know about black holes!

I was a little confused about Hawking attributing a sweeping loss of order to the universe in his elucidation of entropy with barely a nod to increasing order. He concedes the remarkable nature of human consciousness and man’s understanding of the universe, and refers to it as “a small corner of order”, but isn’t that small corner a greater improbability than all of the rest of the universe’s order/disorder put together? In other words, the concentration of evolution in terms of improbably and highly complex structure is weightier than all the entropy of all time. Doesn’t this warrant more attention and awe than quickly dismissing it as ‘a small corner of order’? Is he so eager to prove his point about the ultimate Big Crunch at the end of time, or the absence of cosmic intelligence, that he totally disregards the significance of his own sphere of existence and its rarity?

Science, for all it claims of emotional detachment and pure mechanics, so quickly capitulates to egoism. Maybe this betrays my ignorance, but I am always stunned by the amount of angst wrapped up in the competition among the intelligentsia. Maybe this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but still it is upsetting for me to learn—the scientific community is cutthroat! Reading Hawking’s short bio on John Newton at the back of the book floored me as regards the Machiavellian nature of Newton’s politics that polluted any hope of unbiased research he might have undertook.  Who would believe a word he said if they couldn’t reproduce the results themselves? And apparently times haven’t changed: Hawking couldn’t even get through this book on super-physics for the layman, a daunting enough task to warrant cutting out all extraneous drama, without alluding to recent skirmishes between himself and his colleagues, and years later he’s still defending himself, or ostensibly trying not to defend himself.  To the credit of Hawking’s scientific integrity, he has admitted at least some of his errors in the past. Immediately following a paragraph in the book in which he asserts “one cannot really argue with a mathematical theorem [referencing his own handiwork of course]”, he humbly acknowledges, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe.” It seems that though one can’t ‘argue with the math’, one can change its meaning, even years later. Two plus two may equal four, but two apples and two refrigerators equal four…what? The idea that science is pure and math is not arguable is nonsense. Simone de Beauvoir rightly said that “every objective description, so-called, implies an ethical background.” We’re all trying to get at something.

The last chapter, ‘Conclusion’, was truly startling to read. Hawking all but admits a thirst for some kind of ultimate meaning at the end of the book. “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?...Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” I thought it was a brave move, especially after working so hard to debunk God. Then, as if he was the first to ask these questions in an intelligent way, Hawking commits an embarrassing faux pas by accusing philosophers of neglecting their task of asking ‘why’. “Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.” He cites Wittgenstein as a “comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant”, and obviously laments Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy as drifting away from the real purpose of philosophy. Let us suppose Hawking’s elitist view—that only certain people have the right to ask certain questions—is valid, and suppose it really is solely the philosophers business to ask the ‘why’ as Hawking suggests; then who is he, a mere empiricist, a mathematician, to question another sacred authority? Though I disagree with his accusation of modern philosophy, and though I think he has contradicted himself by questioning a fellow authority that he self-allegedly should be trusting implicitly to work unassailably in their specialized field, I still think he’s right in asking the questions himself. Maybe we all ought to be asking the big questions and making some discovery for ourselves, not implicitly trusting Hawking and Wittgenstein to do it all for us. In the end, the ‘specialists’ can’t save us. They can barely save themselves.

That all being said, I really did enjoy the book and I learned a lot. Mystery is necessary for the expanding soul, and we can take comfort in the fact that there isn’t an end in sight.  This ‘small corner of order’ is boundless—as deep as it is wide—and the longer the universe expands, the more infinite the scope and intricate the scale. The universe we know will always be a door to a larger universe as long as something keeps urging us to ask ‘what’ and ‘why’. And the question itself signals more; and if nothing else, we can always squeeze back through the small hole the question itself slipped in at. There’s always more for those who want more.

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