We’re here because we’re here: A Brief History of Time

I wrote this review in 1989 for the left-wing newspaper, Socialist Organiser. Unlike most other left journals of the time (and indeed today), SO felt it was important to be aware of scientific developments, as did our inspirers Marx. Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. SO’s successor Solidarity maintains this aim. 

In 1963, when he was a student, Stephen Hawking was told he had motor neurone disease and had possibly two years to live. Now, confined to a wheelchair, unable to move, breathing through a hole in his windpipe, communicating by computer and voice synthesiser, he is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.

It cannot have been easy for Hawking to build his career, even with the devoted help of his family, colleagues and students. Luckily, theoretical physics requires little equipment and much thought. Like Newton before him, Hawking is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. His major work has been to describe the appearance and behaviour of black holes.

And – a rare achievement for any scientist – Hawking has written a readable book about the origin of the universe, tackling the age-old questions: “Why is the universe the way it is?” And “Why are we here?”

Over the last 300 years, science has banished humanity from the centre of the universe to the sidelines. We live on a speck of dust orbiting round an average star near the edge of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million stars, surrounded by a hundred thousand million other galaxies. Was all this created just so we could exist?

Through the 20th Century, reality has become more and more weird. Light can only travel at one speed, which nothing else can reach; absolute time and speed do not exist; there are no simultaneous events; space-time is distorted by gravity so that straight lines do not exist; gravity and acceleration make clocks run slower and let radio-active particles live longer; matter and energy can be converted into each other; the universe is expanding and has a definite age; it started when all matter was concentrated at one point (a singularity) and then exploded in a ‘big bang.’

The list of strange truths does not end there. Energy comes in little packets called quanta, rather as matter does as particles; but both energy and matter can behave as waves; and we can never predict exactly how something will behave because we can never accurately know both its position and momentum.

Bizarre and disturbing though these facts are, they have all been identified as true many times, even down to the discovery of the echo of the Big Bang still reverberating round the universe as microwaves.

Hawking takes his readers through all these discoveries, including his own work on black holes. These are formed by the collapse of a large dying star under its own gravity. An astronaut on the surface of the star would be stretched like spaghetti by the colossal gravitational pull of the new black hole. Luckily, time would stand still at that moment.

Hawking has calculated that black holes are not really black. Though they crush matter out of existence, black holes radiate energy and are really a sort of cosmic recycling plant. The only equation included in the book, E = mc^2, exemplifies this conversion.

The story is leavened by humorous anecdotes or scenes from Hawking’s life. For instance, he describes how he met the Pope in 1981 at a Jesuit conference on the origin of the universe.
The Catholic Church had already, some 30 years earlier, accepted the Big Bang as being the same as the biblical moment of creation. The Pope sanctioned research into the evolution of the universe but not into the Big Bang itself since that was God’s work! Hawking had just given a talk denying the idea of a precise moment when the Big Bang had occurred.

This is Hawking’s particular contribution. He argues that the universe has a finite size but no boundaries, just like the surface of a ball but including time. But with no start to space-time there is no creation.

Some other physicists are eager to see the hand of God in determining the fundamental values of things, like the strength of gravity, so that intelligent life could evolve. If things like the charge and size of the electron, or the rate of expansion of the universe, had been even slightly different, life would not have been able to develop.Hawking argues, however, that things are as they are because, given the number of possible universes, one like this was most likely to result. Even less role for a creator!

Hawking ends by saying that a complete theory of everything would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for “then we would know the mind of God.” Since, up to there in the book, he had argued that there was little or no place for a creator, I can only assume he put the phrase in to sound good to reviewers.

That apart, I can’t praise the book highly enough. Read it!


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