On A Brief History of Time

I recently finished reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. This masterpiece has been on my reading list for quite some time and I am very glad that I have finally come around to reading it.

Below are a few excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly perceptive:

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory.

The theory of relativity does, however, force us to change . fundamentally our ideas of space and time. We must accept that time is not completely separate from and independent of space, but is combined with it to form an object called space-time.

The situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities: when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time—and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. Just as one cannot talk about events in the universe without the notions of space and time, so in general relativity it became meaningless to talk about space and time outside the limits of the universe.

However, general relativity claims to be only a partial theory, so what the singularity theorems really show is that there must have been a time in the very early universe when the universe was so small that one could no longer ignore the small-scale effects of the other great partial theory Of the twentieth century, quantum mechanics. At the start of the 1970s then, we were forced to turn our search for an understanding off the universe from our theory of the extraordinarily vast to our theory of the extraordinarily tiny. That theory, quantum mechanics, will be described next, before we turn to the efforts to combine the two partial theories into a single quantum theory of gravity.

Thus, in a sense, classical general relativity, by predicting points of infinite density, predicts its own downfall, just as classical (that is, non-quantum) mechanics predicted its downfall by suggesting that atoms should collapse to infinite density. We do not yet have a complete consistent theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics, but we do know a number of the features it should have. The consequences that these would have for black holes and the big bang will be described in later chapters. For the moment, however, we shall turn to the recent attempts to bring together our understanding of the other forces of nature into a single unified quantum theory.

To summarize, the laws of science do not distinguish between the forward and backward directions of time. However, there are at least three arrows of time that do distinguish the past from the future. They are the thermodynamic arrow, the direction of time in which disorder increases; the psychological arrow, the direction of time in which i we remember the past and nor the future; and the cosmological arrow, the direction of time in which the universe expands rather than contracts. I have shown that the psychological arrow is essentially the same ass the thermodynamic arrow, so that the two would always point in the same direction. The no boundary proposal for the universe predicts the existence of a well-defined thermodynamic arrow of time because the universe must start off in a smooth and ordered state. And the reason we observe this thermodynamic arrow to agree with the cosmological arrow is that intelligent beings can exist only in the expanding phase.

Even if we do discover a complete unified theory, it would not mean that we would be able to predict events in general, for two reasons. The first is the limitation that the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics sets on our powers of prediction. There is nothing we can do to get around that. In practice, however, this first limitation is less restrictive than the second one. It arises from the fact that we could not solve the equations of the theory exactly, except in very simple situations. (We cannot even solve exactly for the motion of three bodies in Newton’s theory of gravity, and the difficulty increases with the number of bodies and the complexity of the theory.) We already know the laws that govern the behavior of matter under all but the most extreme conditions. In particular, we know the basic laws that underlie all of chemistry and biology. Yet we have certainly not reduced these subjects to the status of solved problems: we have, as yet, had little success in predicting human behavior from mathematical equations! So even if we do find a complete set of basic laws, there will still be in the years ahead the intellectually challenging task of developing better approximation methods, so that we can make useful predictions of the probable outcomes in complicated and realistic situations. 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.

In conclusion:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

A must read that is relevant to everyone and anyone who is looking to better understand our universe.


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