A Brief History of Time
By: Priya Makhijani
“We are lucky to live in an age in which we are still making discoveries.”
– Richard Feynman
Dr. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who passed away a few months before Dr. Stephen Hawking’s highly acclaimed book, A Brief History of Time, was first published in 1988. Dr. Hawking, known for exploring the boundaries of general relativity and quantum mechanics, passed away only a few months ago, on the 14th of March 2018. His death marks the end of an important era of research in theoretical physics. But discovery will continue—as Dr. Hawking reasons in his book—because we have yet to uncover a unified theory that fully explains the nature our universe(s).
A Brief History of Time delves into the most mysterious questions—some that you may have grappled with yourself. For example, what caused the “big bang” and when exactly was it? When and how will the world end? Is the universe expanding? Is time travel possible? Is there evidence of God? Within the first chapters, Hawking brings the lay reader to an understanding of the evolution of theoretical physics, from Galileo to Newton and Einstein—as well as each of their shortcomings. A Brief History of Time also highlights the socio-political context in which this research was conducted and exemplifies the power of public awareness of and participation in science.
A particularly remarkable model described in A Brief History of Time was one that proved our universe was expanding. With a simple 1920s telescope, Edwin Hubble collected significant data on the colour, composition and changing position of every star in the sky. Using this information, astronomers were able to calculate that stars from both our galaxy and others appeared red-shifted. Hawking further explains what this means. If a ray of light is emitted by an object approaching us, its wave crests are closer together and light appears on the blue end of the spectrum (smaller wavelength). However, when the object is moving away, its wave crests are farther apart and appear red-shifted (larger wavelength). This is the same Doppler Effect and is routinely used by police in radar guns to implicate speeding vehicles. When applied to stars appearing red-shifted, the Doppler Effect proves that our universe is expanding. According to Hawking, this was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century.
With clarity and wit, Hawking goes on to review topics such as the nature of black holes, parallel universes, and time travel. In the concluding chapter, Hawking reminds the reader of incongruences in past and present theories and the need for a unified theory of physics. He ends with a surprising outlook on God. Hawking says, “The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.” Hawking, however, was a self-proclaimed atheist.
As a biologist, I’ve always contended with the idea that physicists are the “superior” scientists. After all, they do complex mathematics, study space, and solve problems with implications in both the physical as well as metaphysical realms. However, in a swollen-headed effort to prove my significance as a biologist, I would like to point out that we are not simply looking for one theory. Biologists tease apart the many intricate mechanisms that life has evolved to defy entropy; molecular mechanisms that are very much outside our field of view at the nanoscopic scale. However, if we consider the efforts of biophysicists like Rosalind Franklin (DNA) and Carl Ludwig (blood pressure), it’s easy to appreciate that science is interdependent.
Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76 due to complications of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, surviving more than 50 years longer than his original prognosis. In a way, his life is a testament to how much progress both physics and medical science have made.