Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Brief History Of Time

The Halmanator is proud to announce that he has crossed yet another title off his Bucket Reading List.  The Bucket Reading List is a list of books that I've decided that I want to read sometime between when I officially conceived of the list and when I die.  Regular readers of this blog may recall that two of the titles that I've previously crossed off the list (because I read them, not because I changed my mind and gave up) were Moby Dick by Herman Melville and War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy.  Now, added to this illustrious (albeit short) list of titles is A Brief History of Time, by Professor Stephen Hawking.

Again, this may somewhat surprise regular readers, who may recall an earlier post that was somewhat critical of Professor Hawking, but The Halmanator believes that it is possible to disagree with or criticize someone and yet still respect that person.  I further believe that one cannot properly criticize another's views if one has not given those views a fair hearing and understands them in their proper context.  If only our politicians were half so enlightened!

My main reason for adding Professor Hawking's book to my Bucket Reading List, beyond mere curiosity, involved wondering if my mind could even begin to understand the complex and abstract ideas that must surely emanate from the brain of such a widely-recognized mental giant.  Having read the book, I'm pleased to say that I was able to follow at least the basic concepts although, if I were one of Professor Hawking's actual students, I wouldn't count on passing the exam.

A Brief History of Time is considerably shorter than the first two books that I finished, which is good because I had to read it much more slowly.  Some parts, I had to read over two or three times before I felt as though I had any kind of grasp on what Hawking was talking about.  The book seeks nothing less than to explain the universe; how it began, how it works and what its eventual destiny might be.  In fact, had Hawking consulted me (and I state for the record that he most certainly did not), I might have suggested that A Brief History of The Universe might be a more appropriate title, or even Life, The Universe and Everything.  (No, wait, that's been taken).

To be sure, during the course of his dissertations, Hawking does discuss time; what it is, how it relates to space and whether it might be possible to make it go backward instead of forward, but this is just one subject in a larger discussion that covers the properties of light, the theory of relativity, gravity, dark matter, elementary particles and the forces of nature, the uncertainty principle, string theory, black holes, the big bang theory (no, not the sit-com) and quantum physics.  The underlying theme that seems to run throughout the book is the attempt to reconcile the fundamental differences between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics in order to find a single, unified theory of the universe. 

To his credit, Hawking stays away from technicalities and complex mathematical equations which would surely leave the layman floundering.  Instead, he sticks to the concepts and offers analogies that the rest of us can understand as illustrations.  This is probably why the book has become such a big seller, despite its somewhat esoteric subject matter.

Hawking also occasionally breathes life into otherwise potentially dry subjects with the help of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that some might find surprising coming from such an academic as he.  He apparently likes a good wager, as he relates several bets that he's made with colleagues, such as the bet that he made with Kip Thorne and John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology, in which he took the position that there were no solutions for the equations of general relativity which would allow for naked singularities (black holes with no event horizon) that could actually be observed because they would be too unstable.  Later, when solutions were worked out that would indeed allow for observable naked singularities, albeit only ones a very long distance away, Hawking made good on the wager by "clothing Thorne and Preskill's nakedness".  Although he chooses not to elaborate on exactly what that entailed, I'm sure that it had to do with buying his colleagues new suits or jackets or maybe "I Pwned Stephen Hawking" tee-shirts, making it not nearly as compromising as it might sound.

One of my favorite bets that Hawking lost is yet another made with Kip Thorne that the star Cygnus X-1 would turn out not to be a black hole.  In fact, it turned out to be one, so Hawking's payment was a year's subscription to Penthouse magazine for Kip.  I so wish that I could go through the rest of my life telling people that Stephen Hawking clothed my nakedness and then bought me a year's subscription to Penthouse.  I could die happy.  There'd really be nothing left to accomplish!  I mean, how do you top that?

In case you're thinking that, in spite of his genius, Hawking doesn't learn from his mistakes (such as betting against Kip Thorne), you have to realize that Hawking actually very much wanted to believe that Cygnus X-1 was a black hole, and bet against that fact mainly as a hedge.  Having lost, at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that Cygnus X-1 turned out to be what he had hoped it would be.  If he'd won, he would have gotten a four-year subscription to Private Eye magazine, apparently one of his favorite publications.  (I'm now forming an amusing mental image of Hawking in a worn-out beige trench coat and deerstalker hat).  In a sense, he couldn't lose either way.

Sometimes, Hawking is unintentionally amusing.  I offer, as an example, his discussion of string theory or, rather, M-theory, which is a sort of extension of string theory.  Here's a very simplified explanation.  There are particles.  We all know what those are.  Then there are strings.  Those are like particles that have another dimension; length (hence the "string" analogy").  Well, M-theory posits the existence of another basic building block of the universe known as a membrane, or "brane".  That's like a string with yet another dimension, making it more like a sheet (or membrane).  These are referred to as "P-branes" (not Hawking's idea, as far as I know), with "P" being the number of dimensions in which the membrane exists. 

The number of dimensions in which the membrane exists?  Concepts like that make me feel like a "P-brane" myself.  It happens a lot while reading Hawking's book.

1 comment:

Tubes said...

Productive as of late, aren't we?