Monday, 5 September 2011

A Brief History of Time - Where are we coming from and where are we going to?

I feel stressed when I don't have a plan about where I am going to. I care about the future and I worry about tomorrow every hour of the day but I barely think about the past. I don't wonder where I came from and how I got here and most importantly, I do not use this knowledge or experience to get more easily to where I am going. And even if sometimes I decide to crave on where I came from, I read philosophical non-fiction. I never thought I would actually read a book that combines physics, religion, and philosophy to arrive at a comprehensive understanding to all the theories about our origin. The famous scientist Sir Stephen Hawking (whom some compare to Einstein) presents a comprehensible picture of the way human beings thought about the beginning of the world and how they think now. Going from the Greeks, passing through Newton and Einstein, and arriving at the most contemporary theories, Hawking successfully transforms the largely misunderstood subject of quantum physics into something every non-specialist might understand.

A Brief History of Time is really brief. I don't know how, but Hawking manages to encompass all stages of the development of human thinking, to summarize them understandably in 200 pages, and to even make this readable and enjoyable. For those of you who hate physics (as I do) or simply don't get it (again as I do) there are no equations but Einstein's famous E=mc^2. Instead, the famous scientist and Cambridge professor includes numerous graphs, which help understand the complicated features of the uncertainty principle, quantum physics, light cones, time, etc. Most interestingly, though, unlike a typical scientist, Hawking doesn't exclude philosophy or religion from his reflections. He doesn't exclude the possibility that God created the world but of course he asks the relevant question "Why did he created it this way?" Did he want us to understand the complexities of the surrounding world and if not, why did he create it in such organized fashion? From philosophical point of view, Hawking implies that maybe if the universe had been different, we would not be here. In other words, only in a few universes would the conditions be right for complicated organisms to develop; and only these organisms will be able to ask themselves the question "Why is the universe the way we see it?" The argument goes round in a circle but Hawking manages to comprehensively read the leader to the conclusion.

Newton, Einstein, Kant, and the other great minds are no longer incomprehensible but rather clear and easy to grasp. Hawking departs from his mind of a great scientist and comes closer to the ordinary reader in his attempt to enlighten the masses on the history of time, on its current developments, and on its future endeavors to develop a complete theory about the origin of the world. One of the most impressive theories on time and on the concept of its three arrows explains why we remember the past and not the future, why we move forward and not backward, and why the universe expands instead of contracting. The thermodynamic arrow (direction of time in which disorder increases), the cosmological arrow (direction of time in which the universe expands), and the psychological arrow (direction of time in which we remember the past but not the future) coexist in harmony because if they didn't, we wouldn't be here to even ask these questions.

I am not a believer but I appreciate that the author doesn't exclude God from his equation. He admits his possible role and he even ends the book with an expression I liked very much: "If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God."

I fervently recommend A Brief History of Time. I was determined to like it because it was a present from a very important person but I say with certainty that my desire to like it didn't in anyway affect my judgement. Indeed, it is a brief, comprehensive investigation of the deep and dark fields of physics, which, if it wasn't for one of the most cherished scientists of our century, I wouldn't have ever touched to. The fact that I still managed to extract philosophical conclusions about myself and my life from this book, speaks enough for me. I loved it. I just hope I really understood it since at times I was partially confused. Re-reading it is definitely in my short-term plans.


  1. Didn't do anything for me when I read it recently. You are a brave soul to engage.

  2. I’m pleased to see pop science books like this are written for the masses, as they help break down the scientific language barrier that exists for non scientists. Allowing more people to be inclusive within this world of physics.

  3. Naskoro 4etoh nqkude, 4e toi e re6il da tursi Gospod. Ne vqrva v nego, no 6te go tursi. Ta...5 septemvri posleden post...? Hek mai ne6to ti pre4i da razvie6 4itatelskiq si potencial.

  4. Indeed, he is a scientist and he is more into proof than belief. However, what I loved mostly about his thinking is, that he doesn't reject completely the existence of God and he is willing to accept that another explanation, besides the scientific one, might exist. You rarely get such an open-minded scientist.

    As for your other comment, indeed I haven't been reading a lot for the past month in HEC but I had other engagements. It doesn't mean I am going to abandon this blog.

    PS: Comment in English for the sake of our English speaking friends :)

  5. This is a great summary of BHoT.

    I have read a lot of Hawking's work because I actually love physics (was one decision away from not going to Manchester and rather doing a BSc in physics).

    When he talks about "God" I think he means it in a slightly different way to how most people use the term. When religious people use it they are referring to their god, an actual god. I think Hawking thinks of God as the truth... ultimate wisdom. He often explains why it is unlikely we will ever know everything and this provides a place in his views for "god" - ultimate understanding.

    Also, I think the book is now about 25 years old. The last 20 years of physics has been very interesting, and have actually lead to even more new questions than answers to the old.

    Hawking got into a big intellectual argument with another famous physicist about Black Holes and whether they do really destroy the symmetry of information. A few years ago Hawking conceded defeat (fortunately, because if he had been right then the implications would have been very disturbing).

    So I challenge you to re-read BHoT again at some point and possibly dive into the belly of the most recent theoretical physics - it is mind blowing what theories are currently being proposed... even stranger than science fiction.