Tag Archives: cosmology

Book Review: Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall

I must confess that in reading this I have been guilty of tokenism. Last year, I took a look through the list of authors who I have read over the last few years and noticed a paucity of women writers. So, having asked around for some recommended reading, I added a whole swathe of extra books to my reading list (of which this was one which ultimately ended up on my Christmas wishlist and which I was subsequently gifted by my little sister and her family). This is the last of the science books I was given for Christmas. I still have the last two parts of The Forsyte Saga to work through as well as finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God which I got for my birthday (at the time of writing this, I am on page 1,284 out of 1,519 of the main text).

Enough about other books, though. What of this one? Subtitled ‘How physics and scientific thinking illuminate our universe’ it definitely falls into the category of ‘pop science’ and is described early on as a prequel to her earlier work, Warped Passages, which I have not yet read.

It is mainly about the large hadron collider (LHC), the work that it is intended to do and the theories underpinning it, as well as a look to what may come later. Randall’s writing style, though, isn’t exactly linear. She takes us down various side avenues for some time before returning to the main theme. Looking at some of the reviews on Amazon, this seems to have irritated some readers, as did some of the diagrams. I can’t say I agreed with those other reviewers. So long as you expect a slightly idiosyncratic take then what you get is not just another rehash of A Brief History of Time, Cosmos or The Elegant Universe. Indeed, given the heavy focus on the LHC, I would liken it far more to Paul Halpern’s Collider, though with both a beginning and a conclusion regarding scale, there is also more than a hint of You Are Here by Christopher Potter.

After a gentle opening chapter, Randall looks at scientific thought. In so doing, she attempts to contrast scientific thinking with other modes of thinking, though instead of offering a balanced approach which might take in history, philosophy and art, she takes some cheap and rather unwarranted pot shots at religion. Given her rightful advocacy of rigour in scientific thinking, it is clear that she has not applied such rigour to her analysis here. Such is evident when one’s starting point is Dictionary.com 

She tries to strike up a reconciliatory tone (so as to not deter the many scientifically minded people who also might be considered, however, loosely, “religious”) but ultimately ends up in a bit of a muddle. I cite: “Religious adherents who want to accept religious explanations for how the world works as well as scientific thinking are obliged to confront a tremendous chasm between scientific discoveries and unseen, imperceptible influences – a gap that is basically unbridgeable by means of logical thought…Either way, it is still possible to be an accomplished scientist….But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his [sic] belief…They are simply incompatible.” So that’s clear, then. You absolutely can be religious and a scientist, as well as the two being incompatible. No confusion there at all. No wonder one of the endorsements on the back comes from Richard Dawkins! [Late edit: Having now finished the book, I note that in the acknowledgements in the back, she admits this was not her area of expertise and that she thanks some who helped her with this section. As such, perhaps the trouble was that she took poor counsel]

After this, the book improves considerably. In terms of a book intended for public consumption, Randall does a good job of clear communication without patronisation. We get a fairly detailed picture of the history of the LHC as a progression (culmination?) of investigations into particle physics. In doing so, we get to Randall’s case for why the investigation is important though she doesn’t quite delve into the economics and politics of it to the same extent that Halpern does in his account. By steering clear of any controversy and presenting a rather idealised account of how science progresses (contrast this with the more realistic/cynical view of Lee Smolin) I would encourage any reader of this to take Randall’s relentless optimism with a big pinch of salt.

Over and above the other works referenced, what we get here is a fairly detailed description of how the LHC works, along with the particular experiments, with particular focus on ATLAS and the LMS. The precision with which Randall examines the inner workings is a symptom of the passion that she has for the experiment, which is evident throughout the book. Along the way, we get sidetracked a bit, but though these diversions resulted in some negative reviews I thought they rather enriched the text. The only downside here was one passage where Randall posited that good ideas will always find an audience, citing as an example a single instance where someone who wasn’t part of the scientific establishment had their work noticed by someone who was, and that idea flourished. What surprised me was that a rationalist like Randall didn’t recognise this as an example of a variation of Survivor Bias.

The culmination of the book is a good description of how the Higgs mechanism works. While much has been said about the Higgs boson in recent years, I have read far too many second-rate descriptions of the science underlying the theory. This is absolutely not second-rate. Randall gives a very clear account which anyone with an A-level in physics should have no problem grasping. Of course, at the time of writing, the discovery was still not confirmed and was a tantalising opportunity which was expressed with what by now I realised was Randall’s customary rosy-tinted exuberance.

It would not surprise me in the least if Randall were either writing another book giving more details about the discovery or if the chapter in this book were being re-written for a later edition. This reader, though, may be more inclined to give John Butterworth’s new book a spin.

The book ends with a look beyond the then hoped-for Higgs discovery to look at what may well be the most pressing issues in physics: dark matter and dark energy. Randall stays with the standard terminology but rightly points out the names are a little misleading. I had not really thought about them too hard, but when you do, you realise that “dark matter” doesn’t convey the meaning quite as well as “transparent matter” does. It is here that the reach of physics stretches beyond our experiments and where theorists like Randall come to the fore. My personal view is that theorists should be at the vanguard of physics, with the experimentalists following on behind, trying to falsify or (as far as possible) confirm the work of the theorists, whilst keeping in mind Popper. Randall differs from this slightly with a slightly confusing take on “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches, though her usage seems topsy-turvy compared to what one might naturally think those terms mean.

At over 400 pages, it’s not the briefest of takes, but Randall’s writing style makes it quite easy to get through without getting bogged down. There are a few sections alluded to above that could do with trimming or revising, but on the whole it is a very creditable work that I would recommend to anyone interested in particle physics.


It’s just a theory

Last week I was a watching a repeat of an edition of Horizon which was looking at the idea of what was around before the Big Bang. For UK readers, it may still be available on iPlayer and would highly recommend watching it. It features a few of my favourite scientists: the physicists Neil Turok and Lee Smolin and the mathematician Roger Penrose. Those who know me well may recall that for my master’s degree I studied Roger’s twistor theory under the supervision of one of Roger’s former students.

The programme featured a variety of views from these and other scientists about a controversial notion. I’m familiar with Roger’s view, conformal cyclic cosmology, from reading his work, Cycles of Time. The other views I had heard before (not least from when the programme was first aired) but was less acquainted with.

One post I saw on Facebook read as follows: “So watching Horizon about the Big Bang, and loving the fact that scientists clearly have not got a clue about the universe started. Mmm…

One of the comments below stated: “Most of science is all theory and guess work!

These two combined rather got my hackles up. I chose not to enter into a debate then and there but rather think about it for a few days and write something up the following weekend (which, at 9:31pm on a Saturday night, I am now doing).

The first comment

The phrase that I object to here “have not got a clue”. Cosmology may be a relatively young science with much of the universe still to explore, but the notion that there isn’t a clue simply flies in the face of the evidence.

After the discovery of galaxies and the measures of their redshifts allowed for us to realise that we live in an expanding universe. This has been backed up by numerous astronomical observations and, to the best of knowledge, no observations have been made that falsify the idea of the expanding universe.

The idea of the Big Bang (a term originally used as a derisory attempt to discredit it by the steady state advocate, Fred Hoyle) was then developed by ‘turning back the clock’ and asking: if the universe is expanding, then in the past it was smaller, but how far back does that go.

The serendipitous discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson was the nail in the coffin for Hoyle’s steady state hypothesis. It also tied in neatly with the developing theory of the Big Bang.

To date, it is the best theory of how the universe came into being. It accords with the best available evidence and has been studied in great detail in papers published in peer-reviewed journals – the gold standard of scientific epistemology. (Though it should be added that it’s not foolproof, as recently attested)

That doesn’t mean our knowledge and understanding is perfect and complete. If it were, there would be no need for further analysis. A lack of understanding is not a cause for abandonment or of making presumptions, it is a cause for further study. The Big Bang theory has its limits and the Horizon programme probed at some of these limits, asking important questions. If it turns out that another theory will be needed in order to give more details into the universe’s origins then it must take into account the evidence to date.

To take an historical example, Einstein’s general relativity recast Newton’s earlier work. The formalisms look quite different, but if one starts from Einstein and make some simplifications, one can rederive Newton. But Einstein had to start with Newton. Newton’s work was necessary to begin with. It seems unlikely that the more ‘obvious’ formalism would be overlooked and that someone could have come up with the more sophisticated theory. Yet Einstein didn’t overthrow Newton. The former built upon and refined the latter.

The case may be the same with the Big Bang. If a new theory is needed it will need to incorporate the evidence gathered to date. It would likely have an element which, if simplified, would result in something that looks like the formalism of the Big Bang. It’s doubtful many  people would understand it at first. But the lack of understanding is not a good reason for rejection. It should be quite exciting.

This is why I reject the idea that “scientists clearly have not got a clue about the universe started”. We have many clues. We have a coherent and consistent model of how it came about. It’s not complete, with some aspects as yet not understood. The work of the cosmologist is to try to bridge that gap in understanding.

The second comment 

So then, with that in mind, what about the second point?

“Most of science is all theory and guess work!”

First, we have the appalling grammar to deal with. Is it all or is it most? It can be difficult to judge tone in a written text (goodness knows what you make of my tone on this blog sometimes!), especially in one so short, but I read this is a statement not made by someone well-versed in science but rather as a condemnatory statement.

One of the key words here is “theory”. It is an example of where words which have fairly precise, technical meanings are also used in colloquial English. For another example in a different context, see my take here on the use of ‘complex’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines theory as “1. an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain something. 2. a set of principles on which an activity is based.” A footnote adds that it is derived from the Greek theoria which is translated as ‘speculation’.

This is the more common use of the term, and represents an unscientific viewpoint. That is not to say it is an inferior viewpoint in any way. It’s just a use of the term that is not context-specific. Contrast it with this, from Encyclopaedia Britannica: “a systematic ideational structure of broad scope, conceived by the imagination of man, that encompasses a family of empirical (experiential) laws regarding regularities existing in objects and events, both observed and posited – a structure suggested by these laws and devised to explain them in a scientifically rational manner.”

I would paraphrase this as: a framework of understanding, based on observation, by which reality is modelled.

However you prefer it, the scientific theory is a lot more than speculation. For that we would generally use the term hypothesis or conjecture.

But this brings us back to the comment. We test what we want to find out, in other words, what we do not know. Science tends to come in two parts: theoretical and experimental. I’m much more of a theorist. The work of the theorist is to develop the models, usually mathematical, and develop them into a coherent system which first of all agrees with all known observed data and secondly makes new, testable predictions. Depending on what area of science one works in, one will have different standards of evidence. Mathematics is the most precise of the sciences, where the only evidence accepted is that of proof. It’s a watertight logic. In physics, such proof is hard to come by. But physics is extremely rigorous, with 5-sigma being the level of certainty required before announcing a discovery . The use of this was well documented at the Large Hadron Collider in two recent instances: 1) the discovery of the Higgs boson and 2) the possibility (later explained) that a particle had travelled faster than the speed of light.

The latter point makes for an interesting case study in the scientific method. The apparent result would, if true, have contradicted a century’s worth of physics. That was not a reason to either throw Einstein out of the window or to reject the experiment as a hoax. It demanded to be taken seriously. It was the fact that Einstein’s relativity has been tested numerous times and that the framework which is established by that theory is one that we use everyday (e.g. for satellite navigation) that made a possible falsification a prospect that was at once thrilling and threatening. Had it been wrong, how would the body of evidence that supports it be accounted for?

I could go on even more. But I hope I’ve made my point.

Yes, science is theory, but that’s how it works. In the development of our theories there are hypotheses made. These are not random guesses flung out, but are the result of disciplined work. Once those hypotheses are tested they might be rejected or incorporated into the current theory. We have a lot of clues as to how the universe began and what goes on within it. We don’t know everything, and that is why research continues.

Book Review: Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Coles

It is rare for me to walk into a bookshop and walk out again without buying at least one book; more often than not, it’s two or three at a time. This was one I picked up in the summer when I went to visit the royal observatory and national maritime museum in Greenwich, as there was an exhibition on at the latter which was on the subject of cosmology. There were various options open, though I chose not to get the enormous hardback book full of images from the Hubble space telescope.

For those of you who are unaware, I studied maths at university, with a particular emphasis on mathematical physics. In my first year, I took a free elective module in cosmology. So while I do review this book as an expert in the field, I do review it as an informed and educated amateur.

Of all branches of all the physical sciences, cosmology is by far the most far reaching. As far as we know for certain, biology is a science that is restricted to just one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy, in one cluster of the universe. Yet cosmology is concerned with all those other planets, in other solar systems, in other galaxies, in other clusters. In short, it’s about as close to a study of everything that we reasonably have a name for. This is a far cry from the social sciences, such as economics, which are wholly human inventions and have no basis in nature. It’s this broad scope that has always fascinated me, though I admit this blog doesn’t always reflect the amount of time I spend thinking about it and marveling at it.

So how can Peter Coles, in 127 pages, do justice to such a vast topic? He begins with beginnings. He gives us an overview of how past civilizations have thought of what we would now refer to as the universe, or cosmos or heavens. In particular, the idea of how they came to be. After all, it seems a very human question to ask “how did this all begin”. The wealth and breadth of information that could be covered by any number of creation myths throughout history would be enough to fill the space Coles had available many times over. So he was given a tough hand to play with, knowing what to leave out and what level of detail to include. What he gives us is a few interesting pages that will require significant follow-up on the part of the interested reader. We get a whistle-stop tour that I felt was a little shallow. It provides some illumination, but little more than that provided by Rigel onto a street in rural Northumberland. It felt as though it was a request made by the editors rather than part of the plan of the author. Only in chapter 2 does he really get motoring.

So it is that we jump straight into Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This he does by wordy explanation and a few diagrams, all of which will be familiar to those who have studied the subject before. But this is an introduction and it should be accessible to the non-expert reader. As far as it does, Coles does very well, I think. He avoids getting bogged down in too much detail. Though some readers may wonder “how do they know that” I can say that the answer lies in the mathematical detail from which we are spared. This is an inherent problem in any science writing, but Coles deals with it as well as anyone could reasonably be expected to.

From the basic equivalence of gravitation and acceleration, he looks at some of the large scale geometry of the universe and the principles of symmetry and isotropy. It was nice to see mention here of Roger Penrose, for whom I have particular liking as it was one of his theories I studied for my Master’s under the tutelage of one of Penrose’s former students. All this is laying the groundwork for a later chapter, though first he moves away from some of the theoretical side, which had been the focus so far, onto the experimental side. Specifically, this was the work of Edwin Hubble on the redshifts of galaxies.

I would imagine almost any reader who is interested enough to pick up the book will have some assumption or expectation that it concern the Big Bang at some point. In that, Coles doesn’t disappoint us. What he does do though, is lead us along the historical path that (mostly) late 19th century into the 20th took. So having looked at the work of Hubble and Einstein he asks the reader “so what”? If we can show that the universe is expanding and, given what we know of general relativity, does this imply anything? It is this question to which the Big Bang is the answer we now give.

In his description, Coles takes in some important factors which may be new to some of the informed-but-not-expert readers, about particle physics and the unification of the forces of nature. Here, a very little quantum mechanics is thrown in, but not so much as to scare anyone off, hopefully. Interestingly, he makes reference here to the Higgs boson as the particle ‘responsible’ (if you will allow me such laxity with terminology) for mass. But it’s worth noting that the book was first published in 2001 and so this section is already a little out of date. Indeed, with such an exciting, fast-moving science such as cosmology, one might almost hope or expect that any such book would be out of date soon. I do not know if it is due for a revision in light of the discoveries of the last decade or so.

In some ways, the Big Bang is the highlight of the book. Or at least the climax of it. The early chapters led up to it while the later chapters show the consequences. In these, he looks carefully at the density of energy and matter in the universe, asking how this will affect the future of the universe. There is also a more astronomical take on cosmic structures, which is not something I got round to studying at university, but which is nonetheless fascinating and mind-boggling in its beautiful complexity.

The book closes almost with a recapitulation of the aims of Einstein in his later years. Here we return very much to the theoretical end of science (though some might harshly call it speculation) and ask questions about the unification of all known forces, as well as looking at the anthropic principles (strong and weak). The final chapter seems designed for the reader to ponder. These are open questions to which we don’t have anything resembling a firm answer as yet. These are the questions which make us think, which make science interesting.

In giving his overview, Coles has done as good a job as anyone who had been tasked with such a feat might be expected. At the points where physics starts to overlap or infringe upon philosophy, some might disagree with his particular take, but that is no great criticism. Science is, after all, a human endeavour, subject to the whims and emphases we each put on it, even if that simply be in the questions we ask. For those who had not studied cosmology but were interested, then I would recommend it. For those who simply want to be a little more informed, this isn’t a bad starting point, though there are plenty of references for further reading where one can get a little more depth than is covered here. I can’t say it knocked my socks off, though that may come from over-familiarity with much of the topics covered, and they were done so in a “standard” way. So maybe not one for the expert reader. But good, nonetheless.

Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I’m a little too young to have seen the legendary tv series, from which this book is the spin-off, when it was aired in the 1970s. I only picked this book up because I had ordered the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene but it didn’t get delivered. I spied this in one my local bookshops and, keen to make up for my lack of recent science reading, snapped it up in an instant.

On reading the first few chapters, there are two main things to notice. Firstly, Sagan was an excellent writer. His effusive style is poetic, at times rhetorical and conjures up great images in the mind. The second thing to note is that he wasn’t a very good historian. The anecdotes he uses are often highly anachronistic; an example being that he describes Eratosthenes as being a “scientist” though this term was not coined until about 2 millennia after Eratosthenes. So while his methodology might be akin to what we might loosely recognise as being scientific today, Eratosthenes would not have called himself such (regardless of translations) and would not have been recognised as such by his peers.

His narrative is also peppered with examples of where he sees “religion” as being inherently opposed to science. Though not factually incorrect, Sagan cherry picks his examples to give a metanarrative that agrees with his worldview. An example of this is where he uses a single quote from John Wesley to summarise all of Western religious thought. This is, and other examples like it are, simplistic in the extreme, to the extent that they are misleading; though no doubt many who would like to think of religion as science as being mutually incompatible will be predisposed to disagree with me on this. For a more thorough account I’d recommend James Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’.

With that small critique aside, I can talk about the main substance of the book. There is no overarching narrative to the book, as Sagan jumps around quite a bit in his topics, but this does stabilise about half way into the book. This is, I think, a consequence of the chapters being based on individual episodes of the corresponding tv series.

For the most part, the book is dominated by the idea of space and what’s in it. Sagan gives us a brief guide on a few of the planets in our solar system, as well as looking out beyond the realms where we have travelled into the rest of the galaxy and onto distant superclusters of galaxies. In all this, Sagan stays well away from any hard science. He is purely descriptive and his aim seems to be to evoke wonder, rather than head-scratching.

It’s hard not to compare his writing with one of his contemporaries, Richard Feynman, who is the master of all science writing. How does Sagan measure up? Well, not bad. As already pointed out, he does let his own prejudices get in the way of his objectivity at times, but at all times he is incredibly intelligible. A few of the more puzzling aspects of physics are explained with analogies that have been used by countless pop-science writers following in Sagan’s footsteps.

This particular edition could do with a revision, as the publishers, Abacus, didn’t do much proof-reading of the text and in places there are multiple spelling and grammar errors in addition to the usual Americanisms.

The scale of the work is about as big as anything that could be conceived, from the origins of the universe, to the origins of life, along with discussions of philosophy, religion and science in general. His ebullient style of writing is both engaging and awe-inspiring, encouraging the reader to consider his or her place in the whole cosmos.

Some elements of the book are definitely of its time, already outdated a little some 30 years later. Sagan makes much of the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, a subject on which he expounded in his fictional work, Contact, later adapted into a film of the same name. His focus is on radio astronomy and even at the time of writing this review, news broke of a giant radio astronomical array that has been given the green light to be built in South Africa. Yet the pall of the Cold War hangs low over the final chapter in which Sagan pleads for sense in the face of imminent nuclear war. He pleads for reason and rationality as necessary measures that will preserve humanity against the unthinking use of powerful technology that could destroy us.

His work is a classic and should be rightly regarded as such. Along with Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, Sagan was at the vanguard of popular science writing, a field which has flourished in the last few decades, taking science out of the preserve of the university departments and making it accessible to the man on the Clapham Omnibus.

Book Review: Cycles of Time by Roger Penrose

This is a very interesting read on Penrose’s new hypothesis: conformal cyclic cosmology. Before he gets to this in the third part of the book, he first needs to give the reader the background to his thinking. To that end, the first part of the book looks at the Second Law of Thermodymanics, which plays a pivotal role in this work. So if you don’t yet have any idea what this is, I would recommend a little preliminary reading before tackling Cycles of Time.

If you are not familiar with Penrose’s writings, then this perhaps is not the best starting point. He jumps straight into the Second Law and doesn’t shy away from the necessary maths. For a science graduate, this is relatively easy reading, though those without a formal background in maths or physics may struggle, although Penrose’s styles of diagrams are immensely helpful. One thing that is helpful is that even if you haven’t grasped all the detail in a given section (and I certainly didn’t) then that doesn’t mean you cannot grasp any of the later concepts.

No one could ever accuse Penrose of patronising his audience, and though many topics will be familiar to scientists, Penrose’s particular style always stretches you and makes you think in a slightly different way; so that which you thought you knew quite well suddenly has a few extra question marks posed against it. One thing that is very praiseworthy in this book is Penrose’s modesty and his clearly laying out of what is well evidenced scientific consensus and what is his own minority view, as well as pointing out the drawbacks in his own theory. This style contrasts greatly with the brash optimism that Hawking & Mlodinow put forward in their book, The Grand Design, published within a few weeks of Cycles of Time. The fact that Penrose does this raises some interesting questions. For example, he does state that in order for his hypothesis to be correct, we would have abandon many well-established theories, such as the invariability of rest-masses of fundamental particles.

I could not claim to have fully understand all the nuances and detail of this book at the first, but that does not diminish my enjoyment of it or my ability to get the overall gist of it. I will be re-reading this book, going over each line in more detail in order to get the complete picture.

Book review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The inside cover of the book states that it is

“A succinct, startling and lavishly illustrated guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems, The Grand Design is a book that will inform – and provoke – like no other.”

Well, it is most certainly succinct, well illustrated and thought provoking. Indeed, the book is perhaps a little too succinct. It is certainly very short, and it doesn’t take long to read. The writing style is very clear, though some of the humour does have the feeling of having been inserted periodically as an afterthought, to maintain some levity in the book.

The book is a mixture of bold statements about the current state of theoretical research and an overview of historical developments in physics over the last hundred years (with some going further back than that). One of the weak points of the book is that it lacks references. This makes it very difficult to distinguish what is widely-accepted, evidenced scientific theory and what is optimistic speculation. At one point in the book, the authors state: “M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.” I would certainly take issue with that, given that it is certainly not a universally accepted opinion. Any reader wanting to gain an alternative opinion on some of the bold assertions made about M-theory would do well to read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics.

Probably the most interesting claim in the book comes at the start, with the declaration that “Philosophy is dead.” This claim is never convincingly argued, and in fact the authors go on to employ certain philosophical ideas in pursuit of their goals. The entire argument of the book hinges on the acceptance of “model-dependent realism.” After a little research, it seems that this is an original term although the authors do a good job of defining it. Here, however, rhetoric has been used as a substitute for reason. There is plenty for room on this debate and so it seems that if philosophy ever had been dead, which I see no evidence of it ever having been, then this book jolts some life back into it.

There is one enormous “If” hanging over the book, which is not dealt with in sufficient detail. That is the question of experimental verifiability. M-theory is spoken of as the underlying principle behind the various string theories. Yet even these have not been confirmed by experiment. At one point, the authors state that their claims can be verified by experiment but they do nothing other than state it as though it were plain fact. No justification is given, nor experiments suggested.

It certainly well worth reading, but if anyone who has not studied the issues discussed were to read it in isolation, then they would likely end up with a highly skewed view of physics. This is a good book, worth reading, but it could have been so much better.

An evening with Stephen Hawking

I heard some time ago that Prof Hawking was in the process of writing a new book, and had kept an eye on when it would be released. Shortly before I pre-ordered it, a friend pointed out that he would be presenting a public lecture at the Royal Albert Hall. This public lecture included a copy of the book, so I was quite happy to wait for a month and a half after publication for it.

Just prior to the release, the book was afforded a huge dose of publicity, by the interpretation of some in the media relating to theological claims in the book. Since the extracts were being published in the Times, and this is hidden behind a Murdoch-dictated paywall, I had to rely on scant quotes from it as cited by the BBC, Guardian and Independent.

The headlines were saying that Hawking had declared that God didn’t exist, although the quotes belied this position, as they instead seemed to indicate merely that God was not necessary for the creation of the universe. Over the course of a few days, the book picked up loads of free advertising with atheists and theists taking shots at one another. A lot of words were used (most of which have been heard before ad nauseam) yet very little was actually said. Another thing that was picked up, and was potentially the more interesting claim, was that “philosophy is dead.” More on this later.

Even though the above 3 named news outlets tend to be the most objective and fair minded, they still managed to quite sensationalist in the matter. So I decided it would be better to hear what he had to say himself, and to read the full text of what he had written. I have not yet read the book, so I can only comment on his lecture.

It was nice to see a venue as large as the Royal Albert Hall full of people wanting a public lecture on science, although the sight of the ticket touts outside was something I hadn’t expected. I am used to them for gigs, but not for lectures. Once I’d taken my seat, I was soon asked to take a photo of a group of rather excitable postgrads who were in the box behind me. Before long, we were ready to start, with Prof Jim Al-Khalili giving a very well-spoken introduction.

It was interesting, and really quite telling, that his opening gambit was to address the issue that had been the cause of the heightened publicity surrounding the publication of the new book. He stated that Prof Hawking was not here to discuss the existence or non existence of God, and he also refuted the claims that Hawking said God did not exist. He then put forth what Hawking’s view was. He said that “God” was the name we give to the reason we are here. And in Hawking’s opinion that reason is physics.

So really, there did not appear to have been a significant change from the pantheistic view Hawking had earlier propounded in A Brief History of Time. Although I thought this quite clear, it did strike me as odd the Prof Al-Khalili felt this needed saying at the start. Why couldn’t Prof Hawking address this during the lecture? It did seem another instance of words being put in Hawking’s mouth, although at least these ones did seem to chime with the evidence.

After just a few minutes, Prof Hawking was brought onto the stage. It took a couple of minutes for his assistant to hook up the microphone to his computer but eventually we were treated to a “Can you hear me” in that familiar, mechanised American voice. The Albert Hall is not the ideal venue for that kind of voice to be projected, and in many places throughout the evening it was quite difficult to make out what the professor was saying. On other occasions, there were prolonged pauses while the professor was inputting his speech into his computer. At times, this made a few people uncomfortable, but it was not a significant distraction.

To help his talk, there was a large screen up behind him which showed graphics of various degrees of helpfulness.

The first half an hour of the talk was spent covering a lot of Stephen’s earlier life. The screen showed various locations important to his life, although the accuracy of the map certainly left something to be desired. Oxford appeared to be just north of Cheltenham , London was magically moved on top of Reading and Cambridge was now parked on top of Peterborough!

He revealed that as a boy he was very interested in train sets, and was keen to understand how they worked. His philosophy was that understanding led to a feeling of control. I felt it was an interesting point to note, as it may help to understand his thinking about his own motor neurone disease, although he didn’t mention it explicitly in this context. Later on, he said that if we understand the universe, then we are the lords of it.

As a child, he spent some time living on the island of Majorca with his mother and sisters, whom he considered cleverer than he was. Though he didn’t learn to read until late on, he did learn and the key text he was given as an example of good English was the King James translation of the Bible. There was a problem with this, however. An analysis of the first word of each sentence in the first couple of books revealed that “And” was most commonly used. If the pie chart that went up on the screen was to be believed, then it accounts for the start of around a third of all of these sentences.

From there he moved on to his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. In those days, those who worked for their degrees were looked down upon. There weren’t exams every year, only the finals counted. Even for those, you were expected to pass on the basis of your brilliance alone. It was only when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease that he realised the value of work and how much he wanted to do in the time he had left alive, given that he was only expected to live for a few more years.

Since he did very little work, he was on the border between a first and second class degree, and had to go through a viva process. During this he was asked what he intended to do with his degree. His answer was that he intended to go into research, with the condition that if he got a 2:1 he would stay in Oxford, and if he got a first he would go to Cambridge. After a short pause, he said, “I got a first!”

At this point, he gave away something that I feel showed why he is a physicist and not a mathematician. He said that though he could follow equations, he never got a feel for gravity. My own experience of mathematicians and physicists is that mathematicians get an instinctive feel for equations and then see what the final result looks like in a physical manner, whereas the physicists tend to think through the mechanics of what happens in the observable universe and then try and work out what the equations are that fit this model.

Throughout the talk, Hawking made references to those people he came across and worked with. This was quite a long and distinguished list. However, of them all, two names stood out for me as being spoken of with particular affection. This may be influenced by my own filter of how I regard them, but those two people were Dennis Sciama, Hawking’s PhD supervisor, and Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist with whom Hawking did a lot of work on black holes.

Getting slightly more technical on some of the work he did, he began to talk about Wheeler Feynman Electrodynamics. I confess, this is not something I recall ever having come across before. He summarised like this. [“The light that is emitted from a lightbulb is dependent upon all the energy in the universe.”] I paraphrase as I didn’t write down the precise wording. It was related to the idea that the inertia of an object is due to all of the other mass in the universe. Now while this may seem quite an odd concept, if you imagine a universe with only 3 massive objects in it, then the situation becomes fairly clear and the idea of light simply uses the mass-energy equivalence of general relativity. At least I think so! I may have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The talk moved on to some hand-wavy arguments (not literally, of course) about black holes. In particular how they are formed. This was something I never really studied at university; my particular focus was on finding solutions of the Einstein equation. So I was quite happy to learn a little about the theory of how black holes can be formed. The focus was on a star collapsing and whether or not that star needed to be perfectly spherical in order to form a black hole. There had been a theory proposed that indicated that unless there was a perfect sphere, the star would “bounce” back and not entirely collapse in on itself. This certainly seemed a problem, given that no star ever observed has been a perfect sphere.

However, Penrose later showed that minor deviations from perfection could still lead to the total gravitational collapse of a star and result in a singularity. From here, the natural progression was to talk about cosmic censorship, the notion that “nature abhors a naked singularity.” Whenever I have come across this before, it always struck me as a bit axiomatic. Other than the fact that it makes some equations possible to solve, there is no evidential basis for it. Hawking confirmed that my suspicions were correct. I still think the idea is probably true, given that it agrees with working theories and sounds quite reasonable, though the fact that it has not been confirmed by experiment leaves it open to revision.

The professor then had a brief discussion on black hole entropy, although I’m not sure he defined it particularly well for a lay audience. He put up on screen the only equation of the evening, being the formula for black hole entropy that he developed with Jacob Bekenstein, along with the idea of information loss. The analogy he used was taking an encylopaedia and challenging someone to find some information in it, only before you give him the books, you burn them and presenting only the ashes. The idea is that information which goes into a black hole is not lost; it is just very hard to read. That said, I think the analogy is more flawed than the theory.

Some of what followed was a brief recap of A Brief History of Time, covering ideas of inflation theory and imaginary time. Both of these are neat ideas that help to sort out some mathematical problems, although their actual validity is something I’ve yet to be convinced about. But this wasn’t the forum for those particular discussions.

Finally, Hawking moved onto the outline and purpose for his new book, The Grand Design. In short, its scope is to look at the “big questions.” As noble and worthwhile a task as this is, it did seem to me from looking on Amazon that a book of less than 250 pages would be able to cover this in sufficient detail to make a good case. But the book is yet to come. I shall read it shortly (am currently half way through Kafka’s The Trial) and write a review thereafter.

Then we got round to a point I mentioned earlier: the statement that “Philosophy is dead.” This was stated as a matter of fact. The reason given was that philosophy had not kept up with physics and that now the sciences are the leaders in thought. If this is true, I wondered if this event was the funeral and if The Grand Design was the death certificate. The trouble with the idea is that it doesn’t seem to have been noticed until the last couple of months. I have a distinct feeling that the fate of this statement may befall the same as Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” which proved to be unfounded and untrue. There is also the view that this is a deliberate hyperbole, which is not meant to be taken seriously. A possible indicator of this was the laugh that the statement evoked from the audience. Nonetheless, I am sure I shall have more to say on the matter after reading the book, where I hope this point is expanded on and not left as a pithy aphorism.

Professor Hawking then embarked on what I thought was a quite remarkable little exercise, where he presented a highly deterministic view of the universe. Now I was of the opinion that quantum mechanics, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in particular, had signalled the end of determinism in physics. Maybe the old clockwork is back, eh?

Then he came back slightly to his views on theology. Following on from determinism, he gave his opinion on the nature of the laws of nature (sorry for using the same word with two different meanings in the same sentence – limitations of my English & all that). For an elongated, entertaining and informative book on this topic, I cannot highly recommend enough The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman. Hawking didn’t have enough time to go into depth on this subject, though he did say that “A law is a law, with no exceptions or miracles. Gods and demons cannot intervene.” So here we have, though somewhat indirectly, Hawking’s definition of a miracle: something that contradicts the laws of nature. While I know some people who would agree with this, I know more who think that the definition is that a miracle is something extremely unlikely to happen, right on the borders of possibility.

However, Hawking did hint at one of the most important questions on the physics/philosophy border: where do our physical laws come from? His answer: M-theory. Now we get to the crux of the argument. I’m well aware of the issues faced when trying to explain anything beyond basic quantum mechanics to a lay audience, particularly in a short space of time (no pun intended). There was a diagram put up on the screen showing how M-theory is related to the 5 major string theories, although he never explained what they were or what differentiated them. His analogy was to use a patchwork map of the world, where the patch is correct in some areas, but cannot be used for the entire surface of the globe. However, where two patches overlap, they are in agreement. I’d like to see the workings behind how this analogy stretches to the overlaps between different string theories. The problem with it, is that doesn’t tell you if you actually have all the pieces.

From my present understanding of M-theory, the term “theory” is a bit strong and not really warranted. It is an hypothesis of a theory that may exist, but no formulation of it yet exists. I know a lot of work is being done on it, though it is yet to make a convincing case for itself. At times, the fervour of belief in M-theory is more befitting a cult than that of a community of scientists. For an excellent critique on this, please read The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin.

One hypothesis in particular that has had a noticeable rise in popularity over the last 10 years or so is that of the multiverse. Hawking gave a little explanation of this which was very good. The idea goes like this: Our universe is just one of many. And by ‘many’ we means googolplexes of the things. The idea (in the M-theory framework) is that the laws of physics we see in our universe are the way they ‘just because they are.’ The fine-tuning elements of the constants of nature has long been a puzzle for a physicists and a boon for proponents of a teleological argument for the existence of God. If the multiverse hypothesis is true, however, then it wipes away that line of the teleological argument for good. Every different universe has a different set of laws of physics. However there are supposed to be more fundamental laws of M-Theory that govern what particular laws arise in each given universe. The problem with this, though, is that we have no idea what these more fundamental laws might look like. Hawking didn’t admit this is his talk. He only got so far as uttering the phrase “if confirmed by observation…” which is just about the biggest IF hanging over all theoretical attempts at finding a Theory of Everything. I hope his book is a little more sober.

The evening finished with 3 selected questions.

Q1: Is a black hole a sphere?
A1: Yes, if it’s non-rotating, but it will be squashed slightly if it is rotating. [Bit of a bland question, I thought. Should be obvious]

Q2: Do we see the same galaxies over and over again but at different ages.
A2: It might be possible for light to come right around the universe, but it’s not old enough for light to have travelled that far. So while it is theoretically possible, it is presently impractical.

Q3: Will we ever know and understand all of physics
A3: I hope not

Overall, it was a greatly enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking evening. I look forward to reading the book.