Tag Archives: technical communication

“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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Artificial Writers

I read an article in Wired magazine last night that fed my nightmares and caused me to wake up in a state of anxiety. The article was entitled “The Rise of the Robot Reporter” written by Steven Levy (click here to read the article online). The story explores the advances by Narrative Science, a company that successfully created an algorithm that can analyze sports and financial data, then generate well-written news articles based upon that data.

The company’s CEO and co-founder, Kristian Hammond, makes the bold prediction that within the next 15 years, 90 percent of news articles will be written by computers and that a computer will win the Pulitzer Prize in about 5 years. At first, this seemed kind of cool. I mean, I’m a geek and stuff like this is fascinating to me. In addition, who doesn’t secretly wish that the news contained more plain, factual information and a lot less spin from media with political and social agendas? But as I slept and allowed this information to percolate in my subconscious mind, I became aware of a personal threat.

I work in the field of technical communication, writing various forms of internal and external communications for a software company. Some of these documents include user and administrator guides, as well as technical reference materials. I became very aware that much of what I do could be outsourced to a computer. Essentially, I gather data, analyze it, then compile it into a format that is usable and accessible to my target audience. This is no different from what Narrative Science’s software does. For me, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to see this algorithm being applied to technical writing, where the application analyzes the code, reads the engineering notes, and determines the functionality, then generates a set of instructions or reference materials that is accurate and useful. So where would that leave me?

Over the years, I’ve learned that it is important to remain adaptable and not fear change. If technical writing becomes automated, I’ll find a new use for my skills, such as developing training materials or managing the information generated by these artificial writers. Our world is changing fast. If you can’t be flexible, you will likely end up joining the ranks of those unemployed individuals unable to use the narrow set of skills they have become dependent upon.

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