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A basic primer, well presented...
on 22 November 2004
Stephen Hawking is widely acknowledged as one of the most intelligent persons on the planet, often seen as the intellectual successor to Einstein in reputation if not in actual adherence to theories. This book by David Filkin is a companion to book to a BBC/PBS series by the same name, highlighting different aspects and ideas that came from the television production.
Stephen Hawking's own book, `A Brief History of Time', is a very popular and accessible account of modern theoretical physics - it is somewhat astonishing that a book on this topic should have sold well over 10 million copies worldwide, being translated into many languages. Filkin's book looks not only at the theories (many of which can be found in Hawking's book), but also at the personality of the man behind the ideas. Hawking describes himself as a boy who liked to take things apart to see what made them tick - this is a rather difficult enterprise to undertake when dealing with the universe as a whole.
David Filkin and Stephen Hawking were at Oxford together. Filkin was on the crew team, and Hawking was the cox for the team of eight. Filkin writes of knowing Hawking only peripherally then, but being impressed with his determination, something that has continued to show through in Hawking's life, as he battles debilitating illness. However, as Filkin states, it is easy to get lost in thinking of Hawking in those terms. Hawking is worthy of recognition for his academic achievements in their own right - he holds the mathematics chair at Cambridge that Sir Isaac Newton held (and, as testament to its importance, one of the `future scenes' of Star Trek shows the android Data also hold the same chair, mentioning into the futuristic narrative both Newton and Hawking in the same breath).
Despite this brilliance, Hawking readily admits that much of his model of the universe is not his own. Standing on the shoulders of giants, he sees further, but acknowledges his debts to past scientific research. Filking introduces theories of the universe by looking at past models, everything from `turtles all the way down' to Ptolemaic, Copernican, and more modern ideas. Filkin draws in the major scientists of the progress of science - Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Doppler, and Hubble - and shows a steady progress of science against a backdrop of political, religious and social concerns. The early days of the Hubble discovery of red-shifted light from stars and Einstein's change of view from an eternal, infinite universe to one that had an origin is presented in context of Lemaitre, a cosmologist for the Vatican, who tried to reconcile modern scientific theories with the idea that the universe did have a point or moment of origin; this was not universally accepted (no pun intended), however, as some scientists such as Fred Hoyle continued to argue for an eternal, infinite universe with the Steady State theory.
Beginning with chapter five, and continuing throughout the rest of the text, the real heart of the matter of modern theoretical physics, astronomy and cosmology is presented. Filkin uses both the progress of ideas of Hawking, the progress of technology, and the various personalities involved in the scientific community (most of whom who are presented are still alive and at work) to develop the narrative of understanding the universe. Big Bang theory presented in great detail, including some of the more philosophical/theological concerns involved (while some churches applauded the Big Bang theory because it provided evidence for a moment of creation, others decried it as being contrary to a strict, literal six-day creation interpretation). One of the most intriguing ideas to arise in physics as a part of these developments was the proposition of the black hole, a gravitational oddity that occurs when a supermassive object cannot support its own weight, and the effects on the space-time continuum are so severe that not even light can escape its grasp.
Along the way, Filkin describes in historical and scientific ways the development of ideas of matter (atoms, from ancient Greek thought to modern times), light and energy, dark matter, and more. We learn about WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), MACHO men (Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects observers), SETI research (Search for Extraterrestrial Life), and doing the impossible - locating the elusive black hole. How can you see something no one can see?
The limits of observation also play into the limit of the partnership between theory and observation for cosmology. Filkin writes that, through history, there have been historic pairings (Kepler's theories and Brahe's observations make a classic example), but the limits of nature are bumping up against observational ability, and the theoretical limits of such observatories is being reached - nothing at absolute zero can be detected in and of itself, as absolute zero is the lower limit; similarly, very high temperatures render everything opaque and fuzzy. None of this even begins to deal with the observational issue of the observer changing the status (the uncertainty principle).
There is an interesting duality that arises in cosmology - those who think that our understanding of the universe and its principles is nearly complete (Ed Witten, one of the present-day physicists highlighted, speculates in this direction) and those who think that there is still a vast body of unknown information to be discovered. One cannot help but think of the speculation around the turn of the last century, as nineteenth-century science triumphed in its understanding of various things in the world, and intellectual hubris was so high as to make some consider that patent offices would soon be closing, as everything that would ever be invented already had been. The early twentieth century in science destroyed both the intellectual arrogance and the stability of our understanding of the world, and things have continued at a quickening pace for decades. Have we reached the limits? Time will tell.
Of course, that might be imaginary time (thanks to Richard Feynman).