I recently saw the current film about Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything,” enjoyed it very much, and decided I was overdue to read A Brief History of Time. For the first few chapters, the book was a master class in the emergence of current theories about the universe. Hawking handles the abstractions of astrophysics as deftly as most people handle a knife and fork. I was on edge keeping up with him, and he writes so clearly that I succeeded.
Up to a point. About a quarter of the way through the book, it looked like I was going to flunk the course. It was sentences like these that did me in:
“Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity…predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down. Such a point is an example of what mathematicians call a singularity. In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite.” (Kindle location 687)
The theory of relativity wasn’t the only thing that broke down at that point. I’ve never understood what a singularity is nor can I thoroughly grasp how space or “space-time” can be curved. Over the years I’ve stared at those diagrams of what look like drain holes without being able to connect them fully to what I know of space or time. I do have a very elementary grasp of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, black holes, and portions of the theory of relativity, but when it comes to singularities, quanta, curved space, and why nothing can go faster than the speed of light, the little TV in my head loses the picture. So I drifted away from the book. I’m sure I’m not alone in all this. Science, always pushing the limits of knowledge, remains comprehensible to an educated audience as long they can visualize the new theories. But modern science has moved into the realms of the enormously large, the incredibly small, and the unbelievably old, and in the process has moved beyond many people’s capacity. Hawking himself observes that “in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists” (2558).
One result that I find troubling has been that while some religious and spiritual organizations accept science as a source of information about the natural world, probably only a few of their members can understand what science is saying about the foundations of the universe. The educated generalist, whether theist or non-theist, who turns to science to learn about the building blocks of nature may quickly come face to face with concepts that she or he just can’t grasp. Fortunately, such complexities don’t interfere very much with people’s believing in a god or other ultimate entity. But over time this cosmology-spirituality gap is probably slowly closing. Scientific facts and theories that were unknown or controversial a few decades ago seem to be working their way into the religious mindset gradually. Evolution seems the obvious exception, but outside of America it is considered a sensible view of the past. And in my case, twenty years ago I would never have thought that the longevity of life over 3.8 billion years would mean much to me, but now it is central to my appreciation of life. From time to time, in articles about social trends or political events, I come across casual references to quantum mechanics or the uncertainty principle as phenomena at the root of how human affairs turn out. Who knows? Perhaps my grandson will grow up to feel that string theory is his key to making sense of the world. Significantly, Hawking’s book itself, intended for a general audience, represents his own effort to bring the frontiers of cosmology closer to home for “ordinary people” (his phrase). As for my failed first effort to read it, I went back to it, absorbed what I could about black holes and theories of the universe, and appreciated the breadth and agility of Hawking’s mind. It was well worth it. In the last couple of chapters, Hawking acknowledges how far the work of modern cosmologists remains from most people’s picture of the universe, but he is optimistic about closing the distance. The era of new and bewildering theories about nature, he writes, may be drawing to a close because a grand theory that unifies all the partial theories seems to be coming into sight; “we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature” (2319). When that stage is reached, theoretical cosmology can settle down and become sufficiently streamlined and teachable that laypeople will be better able to grasp it. “A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence” (2504). The italics are in the book. Hawking recognizes that the value of science lies finally in the understanding that it brings to people and not just to scientists.
Brock Haussamen: I grew up in New York City and now live in New Jersey, where I taught English for four decades at a community college, a profession I found varied and rewarding. I’m married, with family in the area. I retired in 2006 in part to fight poverty as best I could, at every level I could–locally, nationally, and in Africa. I’ve become a local volunteer and on-line advocate and along the way have learned fast about the economic, political, and legal issues that accompany poverty. I also found myself thinking more about the central questions that catch up with us sooner or later: What is my purpose? How will I face death? What do I believe in? I have always liked the descriptions from science about how living things work, about the history of the earth, about the nature of the cosmos. But I could not put those pictures together with my questions. Gradually I came to see that life’s history over 3.8 billion years stood inside and throughout my being and constituted my livingness at its core. In my blog at threepointeightbillionyears.com, I’ve been exploring the variety of ways in which our experience is anchored not just in our evolution from primates but in the much longer lifespan of life itself. See Brock Haussamen’s other posts.