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A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

Stephen Hawking's personal story is so dramatic--super genius trapped in a dysfunctional body defies death--that it seems likely that virtually any book he wrote would have become at least a nominal bestseller.  But how explain the true publishing phenomenon that this little book became?  Well, I believe, and Hawking himself has acknowledged, that he played something of a shell game here, by introducing the idea that the work of cosmologists like himself is helping us reach a point where we may "know the mind of God."  The promise of the book then is that he will reconcile faith in science and belief in God, but in fact, his various statements about God in the book are fairly contradictory and the ultimate purpose of the book appears to have been to present the case for unproved theories which actually deny the possibility of God.

Hawking starts by recalling a dramatic encounter with the Pope:

    Throughout the 1970s I had been mainly studying black holes, but in 1981 my interest in questions
    about the origin and fate of the universe was reawakened when I attended a conference on
    cosmology organized by the Jesuits in the Vatican. The Catholic Church had made a bad mistake
    with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science, declaring that the sun went
    around the earth. Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on
    cosmology. At the end of the conference the participants were granted an audience with the Pope.
    He told us that is was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we
    should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore
    the work of God. I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the
    conference--the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had
    no beginning, no moment of Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo, with whom I feel
    a strong sense of identity, partly because of the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years
    after his death!

His sense of identification with Galileo is an early indicator that what he's about here is actually a challenge to the idea of Creation, not an attempt to preserve it.  But even more revealing is a look at the actual transcript of what the Pope said that day  (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 3 October 1981):

    Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide
    us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with
    the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in
    order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the
    writer. The sacred book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the
    gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of
    man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien
    to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes
    to heaven.

I suppose it's possible to interpret the Pope's comments in different ways, but it certainly seems that Hawking has at least misunderstood and, at worst, willfully misstated what was said that day.  In fact, the Pope's statement, as I read it, indicates that the Church has no real stake in the actual mechanics of the Big Bang, that whatever science and scientists finally determine about the actual processes through which the event occurred is acceptable.  The only doctrinal interest that the Church has in the matter is that the event be understood to have been caused by God and that it be recognized that God's purpose in Creation was to create the Universe as we now behold it.  One can sympathize with Hawking's desire to present himself as the new Galileo, an intellectual hero fighting against rigid orthodoxy, but it is inexcusable to actually warp the Church's views in order to do so.

The body of the book can really be split into two parts.  In the first, Hawking surveys what we know to be true about cosmology.  The best short statement that I could find of this actually comes from an essay by Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books:

    Here is the account that is now accepted by almost all working cosmologists. About 10 to 15 billion
    years ago, the contents of the universe were so crowded together that there could be no galaxies or
    stars or even atoms or atomic nuclei. There were only particles of matter and antimatter and light,
    uniformly filling all space. No definite starting temperature is known, but our calculations tell us
    that the contents of the universe must once have had a temperature of at least a thousand trillion
    degrees centigrade. At such temperatures, particles of matter and antimatter were continually
    converting into light, and being created again from light. Meanwhile, the particles were also rapidly
    rushing apart, just as the galaxies are now. This expansion caused a fast cooling of the particles, in
    the same way that a refrigerator is cooled by the expansion of the freon gas in its coils. After a few
    seconds, the temperature of the matter, antimatter, and light had dropped to about ten billion
    degrees. Light no longer had enough energy to turn into matter and antimatter. Almost all matter
    and antimatter particles annihilated each other, but (for reasons that are somewhat mysterious) there
    was a slight excess of matter particles-electrons, protons, and neutrons-which could find no
    antimatter particles to annihilate them, and they therefore survived this great extinction. After three
    more minutes of expansion the leftover matter became cold enough (about a billion degrees) for
    protons and neutrons to bind together into the nuclei of the lightest elements: hydrogen, helium, and

    For three hundred thousand years the expanding matter and light remained too hot for nuclei and
    electrons to join together as atoms. Stars or galaxies could not begin to form because light exerts
    strong pressure on free electrons, so any clump of electrons and nuclei would have been blasted
    apart by light pressure before its gravity could begin to attract more matter. Then, when the
    temperature dropped to about three thousand degrees, almost all electrons and nuclei became bound
    into atoms, in what astronomers call the epoch of recombination. (The "re" in  "recombination" is
    misleading. At the time of recombination electrons and nuclei had never before been combined into
    atoms.) After recombination, gravitation began to draw matter together into galaxies and then into
    stars. There it was cooked into all the heavier elements, including those like iron and oxygen from
    which, billions of years later, our earth was formed.

    This account is what is commonly known as the big-bang cosmology. As the term is used by
    cosmologists, the big bang was not an explosion that occurred sometime in the past; it is an
    explosion involving all of the universe we can see, that has been going on for 10 to 15 billion years,
    since as far back in time as we can reliably trace the history of the universe, and it will doubtless
    continue for billions of years to come, and perhaps forever.
        -Before the Big Bang  (STEVEN WEINBERG, NY Review of Books)

Hawking fleshes this tale out with historic background and it makes for really interesting reading (though I think Timothy Ferris offers an even more interesting and more readable account in his excellent book Coming of Age in the Milky Way).

However, he then goes on to a discussion of the search for a unified theory--one that will reconcile large scale cosmology with particle physics--without really acknowledging that he has veered off from the solid ground of what is commonly accepted by his peers into the realm of speculation, however well informed that speculation may be.  It is probably no coincidence that this second half of the book, with it's bewildering discussions of ideas like "String Theory" and "Imaginary Time", is much less compelling than the earlier section.  I know several folks, including myself, who feel that they were following along reasonably well up until this latter portion and many just quit reading the book at this point.  Beyond the fact that the book becomes increasingly speculative, it also becomes increasingly ambivalent about God.  He continues to hold out the prospect that the end result of these theories may be to imply a Creator:

    Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it
    that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for  them to describe?... Why does the
    universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its
    own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so does he have any other effect on the universe?
    And who created him?

But he's already given the game away in announcing his belief that the Universe may be boundaryless and that:

    So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had  a creator [the cosmological
    argument]. But if the universe is really completely self- contained, having no boundary or edge, it
    would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be.  What place, then, for a creator?

This idea of a self-contained universe seems especially dubious.  If I understand him correctly, which seems extraordinarily unlikely, we can make the following analogy:  the universe is like an egg, whole unto itself, and if you try to find an end point on the shell, there is none because it just keeps continuing around.  That's all well and good, but his next step is to say that nothing preceded the egg and nothing comes after it.  I'm just not buying that, any more than I accept that there was no need for an alpha chicken because the egg is self contained.  It actually seems to me that the Pope has the better of this argument.  Hawking, relying on the most advanced ideas about the origins of the Universe, arrives finally at a point where his understanding stops; this is where we locate God.

He even seems to acknowledge this in the now famous final sentences of the book:

    [I]f we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just  by a
    few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take
    part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the
    answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the
    mind of God.

Of course, this may not be merely a grudging admission, it was this passage that Hawking was referring to when he said that simply including the final mention of God may have doubled sales of the book.  But one hesitates to impugn his motives too much.

Personally, I've always believed that there are elements of truth in both what the Pope and Hawking have to say.  The ever expanding understanding of the Universe is the path that will lead Man to Heaven.  For on the day that we achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason" we will have become God--capable of the act of Creation ourselves.  But it is vital that this raw power be accompanied by the moral framework that our religious beliefs provide, so that we may be worthy to wield such power.


Grade: (B-)


Stephen Hawking Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Stephen Hawking
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The mind of God? The problem with deifying Stephen Hawking: A new biography argues the iconic physicist was shamelessly self-promoting and his reputation overrated (Philip Ball, March 1, 2021, Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity by Charles Seife (Bernard Carr, Inference)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Professor Stephen W. Hawking's Web Pages
    -ESSAY: A Brief History of Relativity: What is it? How does it work? Why does it change everything? An easy primer by the world's most famous living physicist (STEPHEN HAWKING, TIME)
    -ESSAY: The Nature of Space and Time: Two relativists present their distinctive views on the universe, its evolution and the impact of quantum theory  (Stephen W. Hawking and Roger Penrose, Scientific American)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: Inflation: An Open and Shut Case  (Dr. Stephen Hawking, ITP & Cambridge Univ)
    -INTERVIEW: Stephen Hawking - The great physicist talks about his latest theory in Quantum gravity, its consequences for religion and philosophy, and his family. Interviewed in Cambridge, summer '85, by David Cherniack for Stephen Hawking's Universe
    -Stephen Hawking's Universe (PBS)
    -The Stephen Hawking Pages (Fan Page)
    -The Universe of Stephen Hawking
    -BRIEF BIO: Dr. Stephen Hawking (Starchild, NASA)
    -PROFILE : The crazy world of Stephen Hawking : Scientists don't generally become cult figures, and their books aren't usually blockbusters. So, asks Charles Arthur, what's so special about Stephen Hawking?   And how do fellow physicists react to his fame? (12 October 2001, Independent)
    -ARTICLE: The Smartest Person In the World Refuses To Be Trapped By Fate (Lisa Kremer, Morning News Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Hawking reminisces with disabled students: "I didn't die," famed physicist says about predicted demise (Tom Paulson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ARTICLE: A brief history of the future (Sunday Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: Hawking and the Pope
    -ESSAY: A Brief Look at A Brief History of Time (Hugh Ross, Ph.D., Reasons to Believe)
    -ESSAY: Stephen Hawking's Universe (Dr. Christopher Ray)
    -ESSAY: Stephen Hawking, The Big Bang, and God (Dr. Henry "Fritz" Schaefer III, Leadership U)
    -ESSAY: Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God (1996) (Antony Flew,
    -ESSAY: Stephen Hawking's Cosmology and Theism (1994) (Quentin Smith,
    -ESSAY: The Unification of Stephen Hawking (Mark O'Brien, Pacific News)
    -ARTICLE: A Cosmology of Your Very Own (Robert L. Park, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Big Bang Theory of Science Books (John Horgan, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Brief History of Time From the Big Bang to Black Holes By Stephen W. Hawking (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME From the Big Bang to Black Holes. By Stephen W. Hawking (Marcia Bartusiak, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Martin Gardner: The Ultimate Turtle, NY Review of Books
       A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen W. Hawking
    -REVIEW : of The Universe In A Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (Robert Macfarlane, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking Ý(Jon Turney, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (Robin Vidimos, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of STEPHEN HAWKING A Life in Science. By Michael White and John Gribbin (Jeremy Bernstein, NY Times Book Review)

    -BUY IT (DVD): A Brief History of Time (1992) (Errol Morris)
    -BUY IT (DVD): Stephen Hawking's Universe (1997)(PBS)

    -COSMOS IN A COMPUTER: Witness the birth of the cosmos, watch the universe unfold,  all from your desktop. (University of Illinois)
    -Center for the History of Physics
    -LINKS: Isaac Newton Resources: a guide to some of the places, both real and virtual, where you can find out more (Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences)
    -Albert Einstein: Person of the Century (TIME)
    -ESSAY: THINK TANK: Let Us Now Praise Books Well Sold, Well Loved and Seldom Read (BILL GOLDSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of DREAMS OF A FINAL THEORY By Steven Weinberg (Paul Davies, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Steven Weinberg: A Designer Universe? (Oct 21, 1999, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Steven Weinberg: Before the Big Bang, NY Review of Books
       The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the Universe(s) Report by Timothy Ferris
       The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins by Alan H. Guth
       Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others by Martin Rees
    -REVIEW: of THE WHOLE SHEBANG A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report. By Timothy Ferris ( Owen Gingerich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Timothy Ferris: On the Edge of Chaos, NY Review of Books
       The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and Complex by Murray Gell-Mann
    -REVIEW: Timothy Ferris: The Case Against Science, NY Review of Books
       Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man by Brian Appleyard
    -REVIEW: Daniel J. Kevles: 'The Final Secret of the Universe'? , NY Review of Books
       Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos by Dennis Overbye
       The Big Bang Never Happened by Eric J. Lerner
       Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer
    -REVIEW: Martin Gardner: WAP, SAP, PAP, & FAP, NY Review of Books
       The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John D. Barrow, Frank J. Tipler
    -REVIEW: of THE ANTHROPIC COSMOLOGICAL PRINCIPLE By John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (Timothy Ferris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Martin Gardner: The Holes in Black Holes, NY Review of Books
       The Collapsing Universe: The Story of Black Holes by Isaac Asimov
       Space, Time, and Gravity: The Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes by Robert M. Wald
       The Key to the Universe: A Report on the New Physics by Nigel Calder
       Space and Time in the Modern Universe by P.C.W. Davies
       Ten Faces of the Universe by Fred Hoyle
       The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe Through Black Holes by Adrian Berry
       White Holes: Cosmic Gushers in the Universe by John Gribbin
    -REVIEW: of THE MIND OF GOD The Scientific Basis for a Rational World. By Paul Davies (Marcia Bartusiak, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BLACK HOLES AND TIME WARPS Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. By Kip S. Thorne (Malcolm W. Browne, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE FOURTH DIMENSION Toward a Geometry of Higher Reality. By Rudy Rucker. Foreword by Martin Gardner (Timothy Ferris, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Jaguar and the Fox: Hard as he tried, Murray Gell-Mann could never make himself into a legend like his rakish colleague and collaborator, Richard Feynman --even if he was probably the greater physicist (George Johnson, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Miraculous Year  In 1905 Albert Einstein, a twenty-six-year-old clerk, published five epochal papers. One was later awarded a Nobel Prize. Reading them today, our reviewer is thrilled by their genius (Alan Lightman, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY : Cosmology Confronts the Creator (Hugh Ross, Leadership U)
    -ESSAY : Creation and Big Bang Cosmology (Dr. William Lane Craig)
    -ESSAY : A Very Big Bang (Robert and Patricia Mondore)
    -REVIEW : of The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (Michael Keas, Leadership U)
    -Julian Barbour Website