Deep In Thought

From the Big Bang to Black Holes

By Stephen W. Hawking
Bantam Books; 198 pp.

There is a pub in Cambridge, England, called the Mill, just around from the Silver Street bridge and the university math department. Almost a decade ago it was where my pals and I ate lunch – awash in pints of bitter and clouds of Marlboro, and so damn pleased with ourselves as to be insufferable.

Occasionally (probably not often enough), we would see Stephen Hawking pass by en route to and from his offices, and the conversation would falter uncomfortably. Even then, Hawking was by reputation the most brilliant theoretical physicist of his generation, and few things cut through the callow concerns of privileged youth like the sight of that tiny, broken frame inching down the pavement in a motorized wheelchair.

Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the chair once held by Isaac Newton. He was born on Jan. 8, 1942 – exactly 300 years to the day after Galileo’s death. He also has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative illness which by all rights should have killed him years ago.

Instead it’s left him utterly crippled, except for the use of three fingers on one hand. Until 1985 he spoke in labored phrases intelligible only to his family, nurses and grad students. Then a bout of pneumonia and a tracheostomy robbed him of both his speech and his sense of smell. Now he communicates via a computerized voice synthesizer – a tedious process in which he selects words from a scroll on a VDT, and the machine speaks on his behalf.

And yet, without even as rudimentary an aid as the ability to doodle on paper, Hawking has been responsible for some of the most profound contributions to our current understanding of how the universe works. They’re couched in the abstruse vocabulary of quantum mechanics and general relativity, but the questions he entertains are as old and as grandiose as any:

What is time? Where did things come from, and how will they end? Might it be possible to know the mind of God?

The paradox of Stephen Hawking is as obvious as it is unsettling. He is the victim of a terrible disability, trapped in a worse than useless body, and yet his mind roams the cosmos, playing with concepts that most of us will never fully understand.

In his 20s, before the disease began to wither his body, Hawking had been a bright but none-too-diligent student: like my pals and me, he preferred the life of the pub to the rigor of hard work. It was only after his illness had been diagnosed, and he became engaged to the woman who is now his wife and the mother of his children, that he at last applied himself and his career began to soar.

But neither sympathy nor awe nor both do justice to Hawking and his accomplishments. If one truly wishes to appreciate his personal triumph, one must make the effort – however difficult – to grapple with his professional work. And if one wishes really to understand his work, one must pay it the compliment of criticism.

To begin with, the universe of theoretical physics is a strange and arcane place. There are elementary particles that have spin and charge, but no mass – little packets of nothingness. Others have properties impossible to picture except as mathematical abstractions – properties with names like “charm” and “color” and “strangeness.” There are black holes with “no hair,” and perhaps “wormholes” in space-time, and the whole shebang is governed by principles like Heisenberg Indeterminancy and Pauli Exclusion – which describe not so much what is, as what cannot be.

Two things in particular make all this largely impenetrable to your average punter. The first is that vernacular English doesn’t exactly capture its nuances. (Imagine trying to describe La Traviata, using an Aldis lamp, to the crew of a tramp steamer.) The sheer mathematical competency required to really comprehend what the theorists are on about places an upper limit on lay understanding.

The second is that the universe it posits is a decidedly counter-intuitive affair. The co-ordinates of what has become common sense, circa 1988, were crafted by men who’ve been dead for centuries: Kepler, Galileo, Newton. But the cosmos according to theoretical physics, circa 1988, is a direct and violent subversion of the classical understanding.

A Brief History of Time is Stephen Hawking’s attempt to make it all clear for us. He chose Bantam as his publisher because he had a vision of his book selling in airports – and indeed, it has been number two on The Gazette’s best-seller list for the last three weeks.

It’s an elegant and engaging work, the type of book from which one comes away reeling with questions. But it’s also, in a sense, a failure. One can’t shake the impression that the physics has been described, not explained, and that some of the most intriguing questions may not have occurred to the author himself.

In an unsatisfactory nutshell, the problem facing contemporary physics has been to reconcile the apparent incompatibility of general relativity (which describes the behavior and characteristics of space-time on a cosmological scale) and quantum mechanics (which applies to the atomic and sub-atomic levels).

The problem is complicated by the fact that various phenomena predicted by general relativity (the Big Bang, black holes) entail a density of matter and a curvature of space-time that is infinite. These are called singularities, and in these instances the laws of general relativity break down.

Although the reconciliation – a Grand Unified Theory that would unite all the forces of the universe under the same explanatory umbrella – has not yet been forthcoming, one of Hawking’s contributions has been the postulate that the universe actually contains no singularities. Instead, space-time is curved in upon itself like the surface of the earth, with no boundaries – no beginning and no end.

Stated in bald English, the theory has a weird science-fiction cadence, but ultimately the lucidity of hieroglyphics. It’s not simply that this is a book for which Physics 101 is a prerequisite; it’s that the author neglects to address the status of what he and his colleagues are proposing.

Are we to believe that the universe is actually like this? Are Hawking and his confreres making an ontological claim for their exotic mathematical phenomena? What’s the relation between what is observed (the empirical evidence) and what is surmised by the logic of calculation? Are we to embrace a boundless universe simply because the equations seem to fit?

A Brief History of Time devotes its energies to explicating the contents of 20th-century physics, not the context. Inasmuch as Hawking has a philosophy of science, it would appear to be a brand of naive falsificationism, in which theories are measured, not by their degree of corroboration, but by their resilience to falsification: “You can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.”

The unfortunate fact is that this particular characterization of the scientific method is hopelessly inadequate. A single anomaly is never enough to defeat an entrenched theory (nor should it be), since it’s always possible to account for the anomaly by introducing an ad hoc hypothesis.

Hawking inadvertently demonstrates this himself five pages later. Galileo held that objects of unequal weight, dropped from the same height, should fall at the same rate (the prediction). But a feather and a cannonball fall at manifestly different rates (the single disagreement). Ah yes, says Hawking, “but that is only because a feather is slowed down by air resistance,” (the ad hoc hypothesis).

Let this be a lesson to those who insist that inquiry can proceed only from a fully-articulated methodological base: Hawking may be shaky on the question of how his own discipline works, but this clearly doesn’t prevent him from advancing its frontiers. It merely prevents him from explaining to non-scientists how he does so.

The point is not to fault Hawking, the physicist, for his difficulties in popularizing physics. Professional writers are, if anything, more notorious for their inability to illuminate the processes of their own craft. Don’t even talk about actors.

But there’s a hint of hubris in the last two pages of the book that shouldn’t go unchallenged. In the 18th century, Hawking notes, philosophy laid claim to the whole of human knowledge. By the 20th century, in the face of the rise of the natural sciences, it had retreated into the mere study of language.

Says Hawking: “What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!”

Well, hold on, pardner. Notwithstanding the fact that the comparison of science and philosophy is unfair – one is a way of thinking, the other is a way of thinking about thinking – it fails to appreciate that the study of language (including mathematical language) is the study of how reality is apprehended, and therefore of what it means to “know.”

The result is that while physics has absolutely nothing to say about philosophy, philosophy has a good deal to say about physics. Not only does one still outrank the other in the hierarchy of inquiry, but it’s highly unlikely that 20th-century physics will be accessible to the laity until the philosophers have had their

Montreal Gazette May 14, 1988