“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking

BriefHistoryTime

This book has been on my list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. I had high expectations for a couple reasons. First off, I am fascinated by theoretical physics. Wormholes, black holes, quantum mechanics, string theory, all that stuff I find intriguing. But more importantly, as a technical writer, I am very interested in how other writers of scientific and technical information are able to present complex ideas in a manner that is digestible for the lay person. From this perspective, Hawking excels in communicating deep and complicated ideas in a clear and concise manner that we commoners can grasp.

There is a lot of deep information and I could not do the book justice by trying to summarize it. So instead, I will cite a few quotes that sparked some thoughts and questions for me. The first one concerns event horizons associated with black holes.

The event horizon, the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape, acts as a one-way membrane around the black hole: objects, such as unwary astronauts, can fall through the event horizon into the black hole, but nothing can ever get out of the black hole through the event horizon. (Remember that the event horizon is the path in space-time of light that is trying to escape from the black hole, and nothing can travel faster than light.) One could say of the event horizon what the poet Dante said of the entrance to Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” Anything or anyone who falls through the event horizon will soon reach the region of infinite density and the end of time.

(p. 92)

So I can accept that our physical bodies cannot surpass the speed of light, but what about consciousness? I could not help but wonder whether consciousness is the one thing that can travel faster than light. If so, is it possible for humans at some point in our future evolution to develop the ability to project our consciousness into a black hole and return back through the event horizon? I think these are valid questions. It has already been proven that consciousness affects quantum particles on a subatomic level. I feel that it is possible for humans to use consciousness to explore regions of time and space which are currently beyond our physical grasp.

Another passage that stood out for me was a question regarding whether the universe was created via the big bang or whether it is eternal and has always existed. As Hawking points out, the answer to this question has profound impact on religious ideology, but not in the way I would have expected.

With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started—it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

(p. 146)

When I first read this, it seemed completely opposite to what I conceived. I would have thought that the big bang theory would be contradictory to the concept of God as creator of the universe. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense what Hawking asserts. If the universe it eternal and infinite and has no beginning or end, then how could a divine entity create the universe? How does consciousness come into play regarding the creation of the universe? Again, challenging questions for me to contemplate.

Finally, I would like to cite Hawking’s closing paragraph regarding the elusive unified theory of physics.

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just 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 would know the mind of God.

(p. 191)

Understanding existence is in my opinion the proverbial Holy Grail. Who has not asked the questions: Why are we here? How was the universe created? Are there parallel dimensions? Can we travel through time? It is possible that one day physicists will find answers to these questions. I for one believe that when these answers are discovered, that humanity will see a bridge between science and mysticism, the likes of which we have not seen since the days of alchemy. I don’t expect to be around for that, but I would like to think that I will have participated in the global conversation.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading, thinking, and exploring!

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20 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction

20 responses to ““A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking

  1. Hi Jeff,
    I read Hawkings book years ago and admit that much of it is still way over my head. Like you, I am fascinated by the topic though.
    Have you seen the movie about Hawkings life yet? I loved the movie. Made me appreciate what a difficult life he’s had and yet, what a fighter he is.
    Happy Friday!
    Debra

    • Hi Debra.
      Yes, saw the movie and loved it. Inspiring on so many levels. Regarding the book, I’ve struggled through much more difficult books on string theory and chaos theory, some of which I had to abandon midway (something I rarely do). But, it’s important to me to challenge myself. That’s the only way we grow, right?
      Enjoy the weekend!
      – Jeff

  2. I read this book a few years ago and found it thought-provoking. Your consciousness-into-a-black-hole question made me think! I wonder if consciousness will be understood before or at the same time as a unified theory of everything in physics. It’s another unanswered question: Why are we conscious? Is consciousness primary, or is it a side-effect of our brain function, a squeak of the wheel that isn’t necessary to its turning? I like to think that it’s something more than the latter.

    • Hi Amber. Thanks for the great comment. Regarding consciousness, my feeling is that it is primary, or at least exists on a quantum level. I suspect that rocks possess a form of consciousness that we do not yet understand. If consciousness is a form of energy, and energy exists in everything, then it is reasonable to assume that some form of consciousness exists in all things.

      Jeff

  3. Remarkable review, dear Jeff…
    Truly interesting… particularly the idea of event horizon and the way the author relates it to Dante’s words with regard to the entrance to Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!. All the best to you!, Aquileana 😀

  4. Alex Hurst

    Thank you so much for quoting the text! I think I might actually be able to parse this if it’s written in that style. 🙂 It looks like a really interesting book. One that would definitely expand the mind! (And maybe there’s something to that saying, after all, if your theory proves true. 😉 )

    • Hi Alex. I loved the book. While there were parts that were a little over my head, most of it was understandable. And you know, sometimes you read things that don’t make sense at the time, but sometime in the future, it clicks into place and becomes clear. I believe you should always test your boundaries when it comes to reading.

      Enjoy the weekend!

      Jeff

  5. “So I can accept that our physical bodies cannot surpass the speed of light, but what about consciousness? I could not help but wonder whether consciousness is the one thing that can travel faster than light.”

    Good thinking! Physics also shows that some subatomic events are instantaneously linked at a distance. Jung and others believe that consciousness can behave this way. Jung, I recall, said something like “space and time are meaningless” to consciousness. That’s just a paraphrase but I think I got the essence right.

  6. p.s. Thanks for enabling reblogging!

  7. Jeff, I was in a rush and should have given an example of what I was talking about. I first read about “non-locality” in The Dancing Wu Li Masters. You’ve probably read that one, or maybe The Tao of Physics.

    Anyhow, it’s commonly known as “entanglement” now. Here’s a good quote from The Worlds of David Darling:

    ***

    It’s fundamentally nonlocal. A measurement of particle A affects its entangled partner B instantaneously, whatever the separation distance, and without signal or influence passing between the two locations. This bizarre quantum connection isn’t mediated by fields of force, like gravity or electromagnetism. It doesn’t weaken as the particles move apart, because it doesn’t actually stretch across space. As far as entanglement is concerned, it’s as if the particles were right next to one another: the effect is as potent at a million light-years as it is at a millimeter. And because the link operates outside space, it also operates outside time. What happens at A is immediately known at B.

    Source: http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/Q/quantum_entanglement.html

    ***

    As for Hawking, I personally feel that he misses the mark when talking about God. Like many scientists, he’s too caught up in a conceptual approach to problem solving. It’s like looking for sunlight with all the doors closed and curtains drawn.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I read the Tao of Physics, but it was many years ago; definitely too long ago for me to cite. As far as missing the mark when talking about God, I feel everything misses the mark. God is ineffable, hence, no one can hit that mark. But that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth 😉

      Cheers!

      • That’s a good point. I meant that an intuitive or contemplative approach could lead to experiences that can tell us something about God. But I totally agree. Too big for us limited humans to fully comprehend!

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