Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Minus God, Plus God

The Theory of Everything, by Stephen Hawking, Read by Michael York, New Millenium Audio, 2003

Stephen Hawking is an almost perfect writer of physics for the layman in that his prose is simple, clear, and precise. His books are neither bulky (and as such off-putting before you even try to understand it) nor overly technical (off-putting to the general reader after investing considerable effort). The Theory of Everything is a collection of seven lectures on both the history and the future of physics.

Hawking's first lecture is a lovely brief history of early physics and the various succeeding theories of the universe in its working and its origins. After this easy and agreeable listening, the book becomes progressively harder going, work but pleasant work for all that. He spends a good deal of the second lecture on Friedman and Hubble's discoveries about the expanding universe and the theories surrounding how our universe will come to an end. Herein we learn much of what our universe is made.

His (and science’s) embrace of dark matter, however, I predict will ultimately prove unfortunate. As history has shown, the various invisible elements supposedly making up the universe (ether, anyone?) are generally considered silly by later generations. As it stands, dark matter works more as a placeholder to fill in the void by calculations that don’t quite gibe. It’s just a small peek at the inexactitudes still being worked out as physics lurches its way toward a grand unifying theory, the idea which hovers around Hawking’s latest book.

Hawking is nicely exact, however, in his statements as when he explicates the statement “Time began at the Big Bang.” He is not suggesting that there was no moment prior to the Big Bang or positing a god causing the universe to become, but rather clearly defines what science calls a “singularity” (of which the Big Bang is the biggest, best example).

A singularity is a unique event in which predictability breaks down. As the Big Bang is the major singularity in the universe's life story, it is especially impossible to predict what came before it. With that information being unavailable, science states “Time began at the Big Bang” and by that is meant, “Observable calculations only measure as far as the Big Bang at which point the laws of physics break down. As such, we have no choice but to posit that moment as a beginning moment, beginning everything, including time, for scientific purposes.”

It is this perhaps-avoidable categorical specificity of language that I think is behind many religious peoples’ abhorrence for things like the Big Bang. They see the scientific explanation and its language as excluding god when the science doesn't really bother factoring god into the theories. God is an unobservable quantity and as such not grounds for scientific calculation. The Big Bang doesn't exclude god as an impossibility, per se, it just doesn't include him as measurable.

Lecture five provides one of the more succinct and clear histories of the universe's beginning I’ve ever read, explaining how heavy hydrogen converts to helium and how dense regions of electrons and protons cool and attract and collapse into atomic matter. For someone with only high school science under my belt, this chapter laid out a quickly graspable early history. The previous chapters lay the groundwork in a succinct and tight explanation that helps you follow each new development.

The most fascinating lecture is the sixth lecture entitled "The Arrows of Time" in which Hawking discusses the three arrows of time direction. The psychological, the thermodynamic, and the cosmological. Hawking discusses how our minds are only capable of experiencing events in one direction (cause then effect) and how our minds perceive in the same direction that thermodynamic time flows as well. These two are tied into the cosmological arrow, which runs from the Big Bang into expanding universe.

Hawking’s seventh lecture is almost metaphysical in tone, abandoning the technical discussions of his no-boundary theory (which is difficult for me to synopsize), black holes, quantum mechanics, and the intricacies of string theories and their implications for the development of the universe. Instead, he discusses the potentiality of physicists in finding the unifying theory that will stitch Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to the Partial Theory of Gravity to quantum theory and the limits inherent in the uncertainty principle.

He is quite optimistic, as many have been before, that the answer is just within our grasp, that in just a few more years, physics will have solved all the problems, answered all the questions. In the future envisioned, despite physics having become a hyper-technical field, this Grand Unification Theory will eventually be distilled down into a simplistic form (as relativity is reduced to its short-hand E=mc2) understandable even to high school students.

With that vision of the future, Hawking grows rhapsodic imagining that philosophers, scientists, and the common man will join together, having grasped how the universe works, and will then begin the dialogue of understanding why the universe exists. And the answer to that question will give us a peek into the mind of God. I wish I could imagine that kind of intellectual brotherhood, but I suspect that facts are malleable things, capable of encompassing a wide range of interpretations. A Grand Unifying Theory could work plus or minus god with any religious group challenging any other religious group’s claim to the theory. Simply having a new theory won’t bridge those divisions as much as well meaning people want it to.

As far as an audiobook, Michael York manages to read with a nice clarity that is a good fit to Hawking’s text. His smooth British accent gives the words an extra savor of Oxford and Cambridge while delivering on Hawking’s goal of providing clear, authoritative summaries of the latest thinking in physics.

The difficulty of listening to scientific texts on CD is that backing up to find a piece of information that you didn't fully grasp, say the repulsion principle of stars, is near impossible. Flipping back through the pages of an actual book is a much easier activity. But Hawking’s latest book is easy enough that if you listen well, you will have no trouble hearing the stars.

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