I recently saw the film about Stephen Hawking’s life, “The Theory of Everything,” enjoyed it very much, and decided I was overdue to read A Brief History of Time. For the first few chapters, the book was a master class in the emergence of current theories about the universe. Hawking handles the abstractions of astrophysics as deftly as jugglers can juggle. I was on my toes trying to keep up with him, but he writes so clearly that I kept moving.
Up to a point. About a quarter of the way through the book, it looked like I was going to flunk the class. It was sentences like these that did me in:
Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity…predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down. Such a point is an example of what mathematicians call a singularity. In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (Kindle location 687)
The theory of relativity wasn’t the only thing that broke down at that point. I’ve never fathomed what a singularity is. Nor can I thoroughly grasp how space or “space-time” can be curved; over the years I’ve stared at those diagrams of what look like drain holes without being able to connect them to what I know of space or time. I do have an elementary grasp of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, black holes, and portions of the theory of relativity, but when it comes to singularities, quanta, curved space, and why nothing can go faster than the speed of light, the little television in my head loses the picture. So I drifted away from the book.
I’m sure I’m not alone in all this. Science, always pushing the limits of knowledge, remains reasonably comprehensible to an educated audience as long the audience can visualize the new theories. But as science moves into the realms of the enormously large, the incredibly small, and the unbelievably old, it also moves beyond many people’s capacity. Hawking himself observes that “in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists” (2558).
One result that troubles me is that while some spiritual communities have the good sense to accept science as a source of information about nature and the cosmos, it is likely that very few of their members understand in depth what science is saying on the subject. For other members – including me – turning to cosmology or physics to understand the building blocks of nature often means coming face to face with concepts too difficult to grasp.
Fortunately this gap between all that science knows about cosmology and how little the spiritual layperson understands about it is shrinking. Facts and theories that were unfamiliar a few decades ago are working their way into the religious mindset gradually. Evolution remains a contentious theory in America, but in other countries it’s considered a sensible view of the past. Twenty years ago I would never have thought that the longevity of life over 3.8 billion years would mean much to me, but now it is central to my appreciation of life. And in articles about society or politics, I come across references to quantum mechanics or the uncertainty principle as factors in why worldly events turn out as they do. Who knows? Perhaps my grandson will grow up to find that string theory is his key to making sense of the world.
Significantly, Hawking’s book itself, intended for a general audience, represents his own effort to bring the frontiers of cosmology closer to home for “ordinary people” (his phrase). As for my failed first effort to read it, I went back to it, absorbed what I could about black holes and theories of the universe, and appreciated the breadth and agility of Hawking’s mind. It was well worth it.
Towards the end, Hawking writes that the era of bewildering theories about nature may be drawing to a close because a grand theory that unifies all the partial theories seems to be in sight. “We may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature” (2319). When that stage is reached, theoretical cosmology can settle down and become teachable enough that laypeople will be better able to grasp it. “A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence” (2504). The italics are in the original. Hawking recognizes that the value of science lies finally in the understanding that it brings to all people and not only to scientists.