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(Unless stated otherwise, all text & pictures are © Lee Labuschagne, all rights reserved.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

1+1+1 for 365, day 13: Things that make your brain hurt


“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” - Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking has been in the news a lot this past week.  This follows the release of his new bestseller, The Grand Design  (co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, with whom he had also written A Briefer History of Time).  Specifically the words "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going," are being quoted widely.

It is not the first time that one paragraph or sentence in one of his books hits the headlines. Even people who know nothing about Hawking apart from the fact that he is a brilliant theoretical physicist and is paralysed as a result of neuro-muscular dystrophy related to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), quote or misquote the last sentence from "A Brief History of Time" - his runaway bestseller that made him a household name and stayed on the bestseller lists for longer than almost any other science book. The Grand Design  went straight to the top of the bestseller list at Amazon last week and the latest "sexy" quote from this book has once again fuelled the creationist v scientific debate about the existence of
God or some supernatural universal force that may or may not have created the universe.

I do not intend to enter that debate right now. But the news headlines immediately made me think of that very last sentence in "A Brief History of Time" which has been quoted out of context so often. It has been interpreted literally for various reasons, or explained as metaphorical or symbolic by others.  In fact, one should not only read the preceding few paragraphs, but the whole book, to understand what Hawking meant when he wrote "... If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God."

I often wonder how many of those who throw that sentence into a debate have actually taken the trouble to read it in its entirety. Even though Hawking has done more than most to popularise science (together with people like Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Bill Bryson, Sir Patrick Moore, Richard Dawkings, Paul Davies and others), the topics he addresses are tough and it is not surprising that some - or even much of it - is misunderstood.  One has to read "A Brief History of Time" and his other writings with your mind in gear.  Although  his best-known books are aimed at a non-specialist public and written in simplified terms, these are not intended for lazy Saturday entertainment reading.  They make your brain hurt.  But I enjoy getting stuck into them and particularly enjoyed The Universe in a Nutshell, (in part because it is also a beautiful book with some brilliant illustrations).

That quote has about the mind of God has  been used and abused almost as often as Einstein's famous statement that God does not play dice with the universe.  In both cases they were not arguing from a religious point of view, but rather from a broader symbolic and philisophical one.  Yet, if you are as famous as Hawking or Einstein, your words may end up being used in arguments by both sides with equal conviction. 

Hawking is arguably the most famous living scientist and well-known for this work in cosmology and quantum gravity.  Many associate him with his explanations about black holes and indeed there is a lot about that topixc in A Brief History of Time.  His work in that area has been honoured in many ways.  The theoretical (as yet not proven, although NASA's GLAST mission or experiments via the LHC might be able to do so) concept of Hawking radiation  - radiation emited by black holes - is named after him and sometimes jointly after him and fellow physicist Jacob  Bekenstein.

I am sure many of the hundreds of thousands of copies of Hawkings' books that were sold have not actually been read - or only read in part. Like "War and Peace",  "The Lord of the Rings", some bestselling biographies and other famous books that fuel cocktail party discussions without the need for having actually read them, the going gets tough after a while. So maybe one cannot blame people if they rely on hearsay or the word of others who have read it at least in part.  But Hawking's books do make the tough concepts of theoretical physics more accessible and making the effort to struggle through the difficult parts is worthwhile.

I'm looking forward to getting hold of  "The Grand Design".   But meanwhile the book by which Hawking is best known will remain "A Brief History of Time."  

Yes, I did read all of it.  No, I would not be able to explain all of it - but the effort of at least trying to understand some or most of what he says, is worthwhile.

Street signs, New York

Picture & text: © Lee Labuschagne - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


To tie in with the book of the day, part of the Superstrings website explains cosmology terms on two levels - basic and advanced.  Quick, well-written  reference stuff:

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