> sobota, december 17, 2005
> komentarjev: 1

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time

"Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results,
but that's not why we do it."

-- Richard Feynman

Is it not just great, yet also bewildering how we almost the smallest of anything can comprehend things perhaps the largest. The feeling is almost unbearable for me. In fact we are less than small, we are tiny, or as Douglas Adams says it, "we are a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot." But still, here we are, descended from ape, dwelling on an average-sized planet, orbiting a medium-sized star. This Sun is located in the outer part of the Milky Way, a pretty big spiral galaxy, which is in turn just one of some million million galaxies in the known universe, and that is still expanding, giving birth to numerous galaxies along the way just as we speak. It is pity that we can't observe these formations, for when we point our far reaching Hubble telescope out into the void, we effectively look at the past universe. We namely see things that were, since it took light some time to get here. So even though miraculous things are taking place around the galaxy at this very moment, we are somehow not a part of neither of them except for those on our little blue planet and some of its closest vicinity. We will never see what is now going on in our universe. This is sad. Yet some hope remains. No point in universe is special, so what is happening on Earth now, can not be seen from the majority of other places, too. And things of wonder can happen here! Yet small, satisfaction this is. :)

One of the ultimate questions is whether there are ultimate limits to what we can understand. My 5 year old niece wouldn't have any problem articulating such a question. She asks me similar questions all the time. I never, however, get such a question from my coworkers. True, they are older and respected and all that, but are they any wiser than my niece? Let me think what kind of answers to the ultimate question above would I get, were I to go out on a street and ask some bypassers. A lot of them would probably give me a shrug, others would appeal to some vaguely recalled religious precepts, while still others might even spit in my face. I really don't like neither of these reactions! I hate them, because they so vividly expose the limitations of human understanding. I think we can do much better than that. I think we can go much farther.
A part of the ultimate answer is the ultimate theory, most probably a mathematical theory of everything, the unified theory. Can there at all be such a theory? There are three possibilities, as Hawking points out:

1. There really is a complete unified theory, which we will someday discover if we are smart enough.
2. There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe more and more accurately.
3. There is no theory of the universe; events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extend but occur in a random and arbitrary manner.

I sense a strong analogy between these possibilities and the three basic philosophies of living, in consecutive order:

1. There is ultimate goal in living, a stationary state when nothing changes with time. Who would reject that? This is the state of nirvana: being free of all wishes, not being slave to anything nor anyone. It's because the wishes occur and they are not fulfilled or one is not satisfied, that stress results. Nobody is friend to stress.
2. There is no ultimate goal in living. One is left with: lifelong learning, infinitely high pile of newspapers to read, long bookshelf to purge, neverending forms to fill, countably infinitely many mountains to climb, calories to take in, meaningless words to exchange, and so on. But he grows along the way and he is only getting bigger and better.
3. There is no real purpose in life. One is left with chaos. No matter how hard he tries he can't make it fit any shape.

While I think the first and last points are a bit unrealistic (I would definitely not comment on the first, highly fantastic one), I vote for the second, for it is exactly my own believing that life, true, is tough and also sad for the majority of time, but there can also be lovely and true moments. Only for the sake of those moments it is worth to go on with life, making it better next time, and so on, in one word, to grow, that's purpose enough for me.
Just about everything said till now - is extremely nicely caught by Janez Menart in one of his poem. I am sorry to disappoint some (anybody? I could try and translate it for you), for it is only in Slovene: Janez Menart, Apokalipsa.

Making connections between various knowledge entities gives one illustrations that show the true beauty of that knowledge. Even terrible problems of our civilization has some of the kind in store.
A human being for instance starts his life with around 10^11 brain cells. Each day 10^5 of those cells pass away. This is how one by default losses 1% of his brain cells in 30 years. By an alcoholic this happens much faster. The number of his brain cells can fall even ten times faster. This means that instead of 30 years it takes an alcoholic only 3: to become 1% dumber. Alcoholism is one of the saddest things there are and it is in no way worthy of a man. If alcohol wasn't enough, there are additional problems and abuses such as: drugs, nicotine, abnormal feeding habits, obesity, laziness, gambling, solitariness, dropping school, failing in general. The problems seem to share common characteristics. For instance, alcohol use masks a type of depression that is not so very different from effects of mental illnesses.
Although the number of stars in our universe in much higher than of our brain cells, the figure is still comparable. Namely everything that is bizarrely big, can be comparable with one another. It is said that the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth, and this number is around 10^22 or 10 sextillion. But if we count only the stars in our lovely Milky Way, the figure is around 200 billion or 2*10^11, which is exactly in the vicinity of the number of our brain cells. Here we are with an analogy between the stars of our home galaxy and the ever dying brain cells. The stars die in a similar manner. But stars do not die alone. They sustain planets orbiting them, potential worlds supporting life, that all die with them. With this in mind, imagine stars dying 10 times faster, imagine death sweeping life around the constellation of Orion, where the Earth lies.
Death comes soon enough; ironically: "Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it is all over much too soon." So I don't want death knocking at my door any sooner. I am positive that alcohol is not worthy of me. I despise it. I remember this each time I am filling a glass to get drunk. I grab the glass and throw it to the wall. This is how I have only just a few glasses left, and I moved to bottled water instead.

That reminds me of the connection between our body and soul. Man is part body part soul. His everything physical is intertwined with the mental. I'm always wondering, which is which, and which to reach: the matured thought's ore or the muscles sore? I've always thought that a normal man requires both - his psyche as physique - to function normally and achieve his goals.
Or does he?
Imagine taking a man one of his two parts away. Is he still a man, or a half-man? What possibly can he achieve?
Sort of this happened to Stephen Hawking, the English physicist famous for his intellect and disability, as he was turning into his 20's. Those years are supposed to be the most beautiful, people say. Stephen apparently shed no tears: "Apart from being unlucky to get motor neuron disease, I have been fortunate in almost every other respect." Wov! Stephen was diagnosed with the disease just between him having got a physics graduate degree and moving back to the university, to make a comeback with his PhD thesis. Inspiration is letting him down at first, but he soon engages his mind and writes his thesis. He interlinks the Big Bang theory with the known laws of physics, namely the Einstein's general theory of gravity. He makes Einstein beautiful, he makes him sing. Some ten years later Hawking theory is checked by an equally genius experiment with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. 1978 Nobel prize for physics is awarded to the two scientists who did that.
I was wondering whether this disease make Hawking a better thinker. The ability to move the body and do exercises greatly stimulates the thinking processes. Hawking can't do that. But he was awarded something else instead: he was given peace to think undisturbed for as long as he wished; in his own words: "One evening in November, I started to think about black holes as I was getting into bed. My disability makes this rather a slow process, so I had plenty of time." He can concentrate only on his mind, so his train of thought is never cut. In some morbid kind of way, even his disease has payed for him, for his thinking capacities has only strengthened. This can be seen in his work and results. He is able to see farther not only because he stand on the shoulders of the giants, as Newton put it, but also because his disease moved him to a place, where his thoughts are given an extra care.
Stephen Hawking as a post-graduate student is wonderfully portrayed in the TV film Hawking (2002). If you ever stumble on this film, do see it, for it is impressive on many levels. It pictures the young Stephen Hawking as he is struggling with both his uncontrollable mental brilliance and fast developing illness. It also shows how a true scientists loves his work, whether experimental or theoretical, so much that if you take that away from him, you literary take a piece of his heart, at least the one attached to heart mentally. It is like a physicist needing physics as everyone requires air to be. You take a mathematician his equations away, and you kill him.

Profound is the message of one of the paragraphs in the Conclusion. For the sake of itself, I will cite it here:
"Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories. In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: Did the universe have a beginning? However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, "The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language." What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy."
This openly implies one big sad thing, that - apart from highly uneven global distribution of goods (to see this, open any newspaper, or look at the picture: World 2002 GDP) and equally uneven sexual practicing (that some are getting it /big time/ while some are not is perhaps clear to anyone /possibly more to the latter/, and this has been illustrated by many since, but lately and very notably by Michel Houellebecq in Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994; translated into English by Paul Hammond as Whatever, and into Slovene by Marko Trobevšek as Razširitev področja boja) - there is felt a great unevenness in the distribution of knowledge: Some read, write and keep up with the latest of human understanding while some don't and stay behind. I guess this is sad, but it feels even more painful when one realizes that philosophers - that great caste of human kind, whose name was earned by Aristotel, Plato and Kant - are becoming increasingly ignorant of the latest findings of science. Namely these are the facts to philosophize about, for they are observable, measurable and in an honest sense the most real. But alas, philosophers nowadays don't dig these things. Show me one who talks about the implications of the string theory on the meaning of our existence. I don't think there are many, if some at all, because it remains that they are ignorant. But equally sad is that they are perhaps passively ignorant, perhaps they can't keep up with science, even though some might want to, or perhaps they are ignorant actively, and all they should do is to subscribe to Nature and Scientific American. - Oh yes, and learn some math, for everything of any importance is written in mathematics, as Robert Heinlein put it, and very close to the truth I would like to add. But they should already know that, right? However, I wonder how many of them really know any math. I dare to declare that nobody should be stating anything profound, didn't he know any math. It's like driving a car, but not knowing the meaning of the traffic signs. You can still drive, for some time that is.

And why it is Janez Menart again - our great but poor poet - that writes about life, the universe and everything with such a clear hand that there are only few of his kind I've met, scientists included. It is probably because he was great: Janez Menart, Kozmogonija.


Komentarji: 1

Blogger Bo:

It's an arresting thought to see us as equidistant (in exponential sense) from the atoms and the stars, the very small and the very large, where physics of two complementary theories reign at both ends: the quantum mechanics and general theory of relativity. What seems remarkably beautiful to me is the chance to understand nature and feel the tingling sensations, whenever I expand my knowledge and embrace the atoms, the stars and the rest between. Let me show you a treatise on the orders of magnitude "From Pluto to BoLe to proton (or the other way around)". The picture shows the orders of magnitude of distance. The scale, however, is not linear as we would've expected, but (strongly) logarithmic.

17/12/05 20:33  

Objavite komentar

<< Nazaj na 1. stran