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By Mike Gold 

Stephen Hawking: A brief history of time

 


We lost one of the most brilliant minds last year. Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76. This genius spent his entire academic career trying to explain the universe: Why it is, where it came from, what is its future?

Hawking was, until recently, the Lucasian professor of math at Cambridge University – the same position that Sir Isaac Newton occupied 300 years earlier.

This man was afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (the actual name is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) at the age of 21. At that time, he was given a diagnosis of two years to live. I guess one could argue that he “willed himself” to continue living so he could continue his life’s work. Towards the end of his life (decades actually,) he became more and more paralyzed so that he could only communicate via a specially built computer which he could control with twitches of his cheek. (He could move the cursor over an alphabet such that he could spell out words. Then the computer would “speak” his creations through a synthesized voice). Needless to say, the pace of his “talk” was very, very slow.

Hawking’s most famous publication is “A Brief History of Time” with a foreword by Carl Sagan.

Sagan was an astrophysicist at Cornell University. Sagan authored another great book, called “Contact.” (This book was made into a great movie starring Jodie Foster describing a first contact by an alien civilization. If you have not seen this movie, I strongly recommend you get a copy and watch it.)

Hawking states right in the beginning of this book, which is about an extremely complex subject, the origin and nature of the universe, that his publisher told him for every equation in the book, he would reduce the audience by one half. So he includes exactly one equation in the book, Albert Einstein’s famous e=mc squared. Now I’ve studied some physics in my higher education.

I can safely say that if someone had me take my first year of physics today, I would have zero chance of passing the course, let alone understand a fraction of the material presented. The course (and textbook) was simply full of page after page of high-level mathematics.

To the common person, it would be indecipherable. After all, Hawking was attempting to describe with mathematical formulas the universe.

So, instead, Hawking’s book attempts to describe these complex topics with words alone. I think he did an outstanding job, although after re-reading this book at least a dozen times over the past decade or so, there are many areas which I simply don’t understand.

Among these mysteries is this one: Since there are billions, if not trillions, of stars in the universe, at night every part of the sky you look at should “end at a star.”

So nighttime should be as bright as daytime. Frankly, I can’t explain why that isn’t so except to say that gravity of all the planets and stars out there, “bends” the light from these stars such that all the light from them does not get to earth in a straight line. Also, many stars are behind other stars so their light is blocked by the stars in front of them. Hence you see about 3,000 stars at night. In addition, background light pollution causes many of them to become un-seeable.

Another mystery he solves has to do with: Does the universe have a beginning and an end? He concludes that based upon his work and many other astrophysicists that the scientific explanations they have deduced say that “after all these proofs, there is little for a “Creator” to have done.” In other words, it supports Hawking being an atheist (or did his work cause him to become one)?

Hawking was also a great humorist. I especially like one part of the book where he is theorizing whether a particle could be accelerated to the speed of light. He says very dryly that a machine capable of doing this would have to be “the size of our solar system. And that in today’s economic climate it would be unlikely to be built.” Just a master of the understatement.

Towards the very end of his life, he says that time did not exist before the Big Bang (a concept very hard for a mere mortal to understand.)

After all, if the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago, there must have been something before the Big Band happened). Hawking states that perhaps there was “time” before this event, but it would be an imaginary “time.”

That is the point where I “bail” on Hawking. Simply too complex for this mere mortal. But his intellect will be missed.

 

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