Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A Brief History of Time - review, Part 1 - Introduction

Lent 2018: Day 42

Never before in my 60 years has stranger on public transport ever asked me about a book I was reading; and now twice this week fellow passengers did just that, as I was sat there with my copy of Steven Hawking's best seller. That a book by the British scientist, who died on 14 March, should so well known as to prompt comments from people here in Poland says much about its fame.

On hearing of Prof Hawking's death, I reached for A Brief History of Time from my father's bookshelf. Like many of his books it is neatly bound in clear polythene, and catalogued (with the number 19). My father wrote 'Xmas 1988' on the half-title page; the publisher's copyright pages says this is the seventh(!) reprint, dated 1988 - of a book that first appeared in 1988. Verily, a best seller, with over ten million sold by 2008.

 Pencilled notes in the margins and underlined phrases or sentences from beginning to end, plus numerous newspaper and magazine cuttings (including one from Scientific American, dated December 1991) suggest that not only did my father read the book from end to end, but he continued to dip into it as and when new stuff came to light. Looking at my father's notes from nearly 30 years ago, when he 65, I can see a vital interest, intellectual curiosity and broad background knowledge.

Thirty years is a long time in science. The number of subatomic particles know to science has grown, as has the number of galaxies in the known universe, and the number of stars within those galaxies. The age of the universe is given as being between 10 and 15 billion years, today scientific consensus says 13.8 billion years. Gravitational waves had never been detected. Planets orbiting other stars had never been detected. Dark matter is mentioned only in passing, just three sentences in a paragraph about the rate of expansion of the universe. Dark energy is not mentioned at all (now reckoned to be 67.3% of everything the universe consists of). We now know far more - and the more science discovers, the more it realises it still doesn't know. "Ultimately," writes Hawking, "most physicists hope to find a unified theory that will explain all four forces [gravity, electromagnetism, weak- and strong nuclear force] as different aspects of a single force. Indeed, many would say that this is the prime goal of physics today."

Having read Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe (2016), it seems that that goal has been abandoned as astrophysicists and nuclear physicists peer further into the unknown and come up with more questions than answers. Hawking is still of the Newtonian old school of reductionist materialism, believing that mankind was on the verge of discovering all the answers through quadratic equations that elegantly piece together the pieces of the jigsaw into one Grand United Theory. Kauffman is far more cautious - and more metaphysical. He believes there's far more out there than phenomena that are calculable; his background in theoretical biology gives him a messier cosmology than Hawking's. Kauffman mentions Steven Weinberg Dream of a Final Theory (1998), and says that the "hard-headed realism" of scientists who chase such a theory, who try to tie up all the loose ends and tell us - "here it all is, finally solved " - robs our human lives of mystery and magic.

I feel there's more than a little of that with Hawking. While he does a grand job of explaining the incredibly complex and often counter-intuitive cosmos down to the subatomic particle, I detect a certain intellectual arrogance - the universe as a problem for the sublime human mind to solve, to reduce down to numbers and formulae.

A Brief History of Time should not be attempted by a lay reader without some basic understanding of the building blocks of our universe; the notion of spacetime, singularity, quantum uncertainty. Coming at this cold expecting a Dummy's Guide approach will not work. Having said that, Wikipedia is a wonderful tool (for me, the biggest single achievement of the Internet Age), and the ability to pick up at least a superficial grasp of a new concept (such as the Pauli exclusion principle) is very helpful in tackling this book.

Hawkings breaks the subject down into chapters dealing with the universe, the elementary particles, black holes, and of course, time itself. This makes is easier to get one's head around it all; plus, for the lay reader, there is famously only one equation in the book, which is E=mc².

More from A Brief History of Time soon.

This time last year:
Eyes without a face

This time two years ago:
London blooms in yellow

This time three years ago:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time four years ago:
Scotland and its language 

This time five years ago:
Death, our sister

This time six years ago:
First bike ride to work of the year 

This time eight years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time nine years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time ten years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

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