11 Things I Learnt from Stephen Hawking

Brief History of Time coverA Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking
1988 – 9/10

Ever since I took up physics in year 11 I have had a love affair with the subject, which is odd since I went on to study an arts/law degree (but that probably had something to do with the fact that I would not have had the staying power to pour all of my energy into helping human knowledge advance towards establishing a unified theory). I still wonder where I ended up getting this book, as it has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while (probably because I was too busy listening to people tell me why I shouldn’t read this book), but it wasn’t until John Lennox said that it was the most unfinished book (that is people start reading it but end up giving up) ever written (I’m sure there are other books that beat this book though) that I decided that I would take it off my shelf and read it. As it turned out, I quite enjoyed this book, as well as discovering a number of things that I wish to share with you:

1) This is not an anti-God book

One of the impressions that I got from certain people was that this was a book that an atheist wrote to try to argue that God does not exist, in much the same way that Richard Dawkins does in his books. However, that statement could not be further from the truth. In fact, throughout the book the question of the existence of God perpetually hangs in the background. Granted, Hawkings does suggest that if the concept of a infinite bounded universe (don’t ask) turns out to be true then it would undermine God’s existence, however he does not actually say that this may be the case. In fact his final sentence in this book is that the reason we study physics and try to find a unified theory is because we, as a race, seek to understand the mind of God.

2) Stephen Hawkings is a really good writer

This probably goes without saying, especially since the cover of my book says that it is a ‘record breaking best seller’. While he is involved in some very serious and complicated research he is able to write in a way that many of us who have probably only studied physics up to a year twelve level (that is the end of High school) can understand. Okay, I probably have an advantage over most other people since my Dad is a theoretical physicist and we have regular conversations about some of these high level concepts (such as having any more than three dimensions would cause the orbits of the planets to collapse), but I still found that he was very easy to follow and he explained many of these high level concepts in a way that I, at least, could understand.

3) Scientists have a strange way of viewing the universe

Albert Einstein

Many of us would be familiar with Dr Sheldon Cooper from the Big Band Theory. Due to copyright reason I will not be posting a picture of him on my blog, however I think this particular person certainly makes up for what I am unable to publish.

As it turns out, after reading this book, I have come to the conclusion that a lot of theoretical physicists seem to live in the same world that he does (that is Sheldon Cooper). Okay, they probably don’t spend their time at the comic book store, or arguing whether Babylon Five is better than Star Trek (actually, one of my primary school friends is a theoretical physicist, and we did have such an argument), but they do seem to see the world in a way that we ordinary people would consider strange.

For instance, we see space as flat, meaning that if we look at a star, as far as we are concerned the star is in that direction. However physicists see space as being curved and that a straight line is not necessarily straight. We would see a brick wall as being a solid object and that the idea of walking through one would result in a sore nose. However physicists see it as being made up  mostly of space, and the only reason we can’t walk through it is because the nuclear forces (forces that exist inside an atom, not the force that can level an entire city) prevent us. Then there is the concept of dimensions: to us there are only three dimensions, however some scientists (and Hawking is not one of them) see that there are ten, or even more, dimensions.

4) Why are so many scientists atheists?

While reading this book I could not get past about how complex this universe is and it made me wonder why it is, with the mathematical precision of the universe, and the complexity that lies therein, that so many scientists seem to argue that it all came about by chance. Even Hawking argues, using the second law of thermodynamics, that the universe cannot move from a state of disorder to a state of order – a broken plate simply cannot mend itself. However, the argument also goes that with the Big Bang Theory (not the television show) that the universe began in a state of disorder and moved to a state of order, however the laws of physics seem to suggest otherwise because what the big bang did was sent in motion a series of laws that caused the universe to come about to what we have at the moment. However, to go into details would require some intense theoretical physics, something which I have do desire to delve into at the moment.

5) Scientists assume the speed of light is a constant

Light through a glass prism
The truth is that it is not. Okay, if light were travelling through a vacuum where there are no external forces acting upon it, then it is a constant, but that is very rarely the case. Take for instance this phenomena:
The reason light behaves thus is because when it hits the prism it slows down, and when it slows down it refracts. Thus my point is proven, the speed of light is only a constant when there are no external forces acting upon it.

So, what external forces may act upon light in space? Well, first of all there are black holes. When light hits a black hole the force of gravity is so strong that it will actually prevent light from escaping. Thus, gravity is a force that affects light and slows it down. Then there is the concept of darkmatter, which are clouds of matter that do not emit light and float between the star systems. Okay, we know very little about the stuff (and it is also a theory, so it has not been proven) but my hypothesis is that if this stuff exists then would it not have an effect upon light, namely by slowing it down, which means that there is a possibility that our calculations as to the distance of stars from our own Sun could actually be wrong?

6) Scientists do not know as much as we think they know

One of the things that Hawking stresses in this book is that theories are not actually proven. A theory is an idea that has some foundation based on mathematical calculations and empirical evidence. Therein lies the problem. Much of our understanding of the universe is based upon mathematical calculations, and it appears that if an event comes about which causes this mathematical calculation to break down, they immediately set out to try to find another mathematical equation to plug the hole.

Take light for instance. For years we believed that light acted as a wave and suddenly it was discovered that it also behaves like a particle (a particle of light is called a photon). The same goes with matter – for years we believed that they were particles when all of the sudden we discovered that they can also behave like waves. As such, our understanding of the universe suddenly breaks down (meaning that we are not necessarily made up of atoms, but have wavelike properties as well).

Stock Market Crash Graphic
Mathematical equations have been very destructive in our modern world. Take the Global Financial Crisis for instance. A bunch of apparently really smart people create complex mathematical equations to determine when to buy and sell shares and how to make billions of dollars. However what these equations did not take into account was the fact that people could not simply continue to accumulate debt without having to pay it back and when people began to default on their loans en-mass, the whole concept broke down and we were taken to the brink of financial armageddon.

Another point goes back to Ancient Greece. Here we have the theory of Democritus, namely that matter was not infinitely indivisible (the smallest piece of matter is an atom), and then we have the theory of Aristotle, that is that matter is infinitely divisible. Scientists preferred Democritus’ theory, however they soon discovered that you could break down the atom into protons and neutrons, and you could even break them down to quarks. So, maybe Aristotle was right after all.

7) We accept their theories because our gadgets work

It goes without saying that the scientists’ research and discoveries have lead to the computer on which I am writing this blog, the energy that powers our devices, and the bombs that can level entire cities. We know how to make a nuclear bomb, as well as a smart phone, so we don’t question what they say because it obviously works. However, as a friend of mine once said, it is still all based on theory, and just because something works does not necessarily mean that the theory is correct. Remember that penicillin was discovered by blind chance.

8) Noble Prizes are simply shiny baubles that have no merit

Okay, maybe the people who win these prizes are actually really smart, but then again, the guys who set up Long-Term Capital Management also won a noble prize, which proves my point.

9) Nobody really knows how gravity works

Gravity is one of those odd forces that doesn’t seem to connect with any of the other forces in our universe. As Hawking points out, there are four forces that have been identified: electro-magnetic, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, and gravity. Out of those four forces (five if you divide the electric and magnetic forces into two forces, but since electricity will create a magnetic force, they are effectively combined) only gravity stands out. This is probably why Hawking spends so much time talking about black holes because black holes are where the gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape from its grasp. The other thing is that gravity does not, at least in our knowledge, have an opposing force. Gravity basically sucks, and that is all it does – it doesn’t repulse as the other forces can.

Gravity Well Graphic
Source: AllenMcC/Wikimedia Commons
It is interesting that in some texts that I have read (maybe it is speculative science-fiction but I simply cannot remember off the top of my head) some people have suggested that gravity is a force from another universe that affects our universe and what it is effectively doing is sucking our universe into their universe. However, as I have said, that is incredibly speculative, and since I am not a theoretical physicist I can’t really say any more on the subject.

10) The God of the Gaps is a cop-out

The idea of the God of the Gaps is that where there are gaps in our knowledge were we simply say ‘oh, God did that’ and think nothing more of it. This goes back to the days of paganism (and Medieval Europe) where all of the unknown forces, such as the weather, was attributed God (or the gods) and we could not know anything beyond that fact. However I am arguing that it is a cop out. Creation scientists who resort to this argument are at best lazy and at worst dangerous. The reason I say that is that it discourages research into areas that we do not understand. Okay, we may never be able to control the weather, or predict earthquakes, but that does not mean that we should throw our hands up in the air and say ‘this is too hard’.

While I may be taking a swipe at creation scientists here, I would also take a swipe at the atheists who claim that there is no God. The reason I say that is because there seems to be a fear within the scientific community that suggests that we may not be able to know everything, or that our understanding of the universe may be wrong. The problem that arises is that if we throw the idea of God out of the window and claim that the universe came about by chance, then we deny the fact that we live in an incredibly ordered universe that we can learn and understand through the development of mathematical formulae. If a formulae turns out to be wrong, that does not mean that the universe will collapse in on itself – it won’t – it just means that we have to go back to the drawing board and start over from scratch.

11) Why are Creation Scientists so dogmatic

Why is it that some members of the scientific community insist that we must take the Bible literally? The Bible is not a scientific text, and it was never meant to be a scientific text. It is a theological text that tells us how we should live with one another and how we should view God. Science exists beyond the Bible, and neither contradicts the other. Okay, granted, God has intervened in this world and done things that break the laws of science, but doesn’t he have a right to do that – he created the universe? However, what the Bible tells us is that God is a god of order, and if he is a god of order then does it not make sense that the universe that he created is an ordered universe?

So, maybe you are looking for a whiz bang conclusion to my exposition on this book, but all I can say is that what I have written above pretty much sums up what I have learnt from this book. In a nutshell (hey, this is me in a nutshell), all I can say is that what I have learnt from this book is that the world is an amazingly ordered place in which we live, and having now completed this book I am just as committed to my Christian faith as I ever was. However, if theoretical physics fascinates you, then this is certainly a book that you should give a read (though you have probably done that already).


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