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Critical Essay by Troy Organ
SOURCE: "Dignifying Humanity," in Humanist, Vol. 49, No. 4, July-August 1989, pp. 29-30, 50.
In the following essay, Organ considers the humor in Hawking's writing.
Stephen Hawking dignifies our humanity. He was born in 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo—as he likes to note. When he was diagnosed as having the illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, he dropped his graduate studies to consider what to do. Insights into life and its possibilities came with meeting and marrying Jane and in begetting three children—Robert, Lucy, and Timmy. For the past twenty years, he has been confined to his wheelchair. He has little control over his muscles, and he can no longer speak. Yet, he writes, "Apart from being unlucky enough to get ALS, or motor neuron disease, I have been fortunate in almost every other respect." He is the Lucasian Professor of Medicine at Cambridge University, a post once held by Newton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and is widely acclaimed as the most brilliant physicist since Einstein. The unified field theory to which Einstein unsuccessfully devoted the last twenty years of his life is now within reach of Hawking—at least, so many think. Hawking, however, has recently said that this theory will require the work of younger and more adventurous minds.
In 1982, Hawking decided to write a popular book about space and time. The result is A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. Carl Sagan says it is "a book about God … or perhaps about the absence of God … [since] a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, [has] nothing for aCreator to do." Sagan also describes the book as "lucid revelations on the frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and courage." I want to note another aspect of the book. Hawking's illness could understandably have produced Diogenean cynicism or Schopenhaurean pessimism. But it did not. I, as one of the philosophers whom Hawking says "have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories," wish to indicate my appreciation of Hawking and his book by noting the humor in his writing. I wish to call attention to Hawking's humorous observations about five subjects: Hawking himself, human beings in general, physicists, physics, and the universe.
Hawking says he chose to study theoretical physics because it is "all in the mind." No muscles are needed. "So my disability has not been a serious handicap." In 1985, he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheostomy operation. Now he speaks by means of a communications program, a speech synthesizer, and a small personal computer. The result, he says, is "I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice."
Physical movement for him is a slow, painful process. But that gives him more time to think. He reports that "one evening in November that year , shortly after the birth of my daughter, Lucy, 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."
There is a delightful puckishness about Hawking's humor. When someone told him that each equation could halve the sale of the book, he "resolved not to have any equations at all." Well, almost none at all; he could not leave out E=mc2. "I hope that this will not scare off half my potential readers," he noted.
He has a bet with Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology that Cygnus X-1 has a black hole. If it does, Thorne must send Hawking a four-year subscription to Private Eye. If it does not, Hawking owes Thorne a year of Penthouse. The image of two world-famous astronomers betting on the absence or presence of a black hole in a star is bathos.
In my opinion, the most humorous observation of Hawking on Hawking is his description of a conference on cosmology which was organized by the Jesuits in the Vatican in 1981. At the close of the conference, the participants were granted an audience with the pope. Hawking reports:
He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo, with whom I feel a strongsense of identity, partly because of the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years after his death.
In some places in his book, Hawking be-littles human beings. For example:
In an expanding universe in which the density of matter varied slightly from place to place, gravity would have caused the denser regions to slow down their expansion and start contracting. This would lead to the formation of galaxies, stars, and eventually even insignificant creatures like ourselves.
After all, human beings evolved from a macro-molecular error. Earth, he writes, was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. An atmosphere developed from the emission of gases from the rocks. But there was no oxygen. All that appeared were a lot of other gases, such as hydrogen sulfide, the gas of rotten eggs. Some atoms formed into structures called macromolecules, and these reproduced themselves. Some reproductions were "errors," which were forms of macromolecules that were better at reproducing themselves. These "errors" and their offspring consumed hydrogen sulfide and released oxygen, and this allowed the development of higher forms of life such as "fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race."
Hawking, like many astronomers, seems to delight in reminding laypersons that the universe is not eternal. It began with a big bang, and it will end with a big crunch. The big bang occurred about ten thousand million years ago, and the big crunch will take place about that far into the future. Hawking advises that the end of the universe should not unduly worry us, since "by that time, unless we have colonized beyond the Solar System, mankind will long since have died out, extinguished along with our sun." So, do not worry about the big crunch; we shall not be around to witness it.
Hawking's final evaluation of humans is far from belittlement. He does not forget that we are "beings who investigate the laws of the universe and ask about the nature of God."
Hawking enjoys calling attention to humor in his fellow physicists. For example, he notes that physicists say that quarks have six "flavors" (up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, top) and that each "flavor" comes in three "colors" (red, green, blue). However, "flavor" does not denote flavor, and "color" does not denote color. Quarks have neither color nor flavor. Hawking comments—with tongue in cheek—that this demonstrates that modern physicists have more imaginative ways of naming new particles than by seeking a proper term in the Greek language.
In his discussion of the indeterminancy principle, Hawking says that Wolfgang Pauli was "the archetypal theoretical physicist." His presence in the same town was sufficient to make experiments go wrong.
He reports that in 1948 George Gamow and his student, Ralph Alpher, coauthored a paper. Then Gamow persuaded nuclear scientist Has Behte to add his name to the paper so that the list of authors would be Alpher, Behte, Gamow. This similarity to the first three letters of the Greek alpha-bet—alpha, beta, gamma—was fitting, says Hawking, since the paper was about the beginning of the universe.
The science of theoretical physics may not seem to be an object of humor, but it is for Hawking. He enjoys inserting an obliquitous phrase at the end of an important sentence. For example, "… a theory is just a model of the universe…. It [the theory] exists in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that may mean)." Sometimes, the obliquity is an entire sentence. For example, after conjecturing that if one took all the heavy water in all the oceans one could build a hydrogen bomb that would create a black hole where Earth is, he adds, "Of course, there would be no one left to observe it."
Shifts from physics to psychology are found throughout the book. In a discussion of antiparticles, Hawking writes, "There could be antiworlds and antipeople made out of antiparticles. However, if you meet your antiself, don't shake hands! You would both vanish in a great flash of light." The boundary of a black hole, he says, is formed by paths in space-time of rays of light that just fail to get away from the black hole. He comments, "It is a bit like running away from the police and just managing to keep one step ahead but not being able to get clear away."
Why are there so many more quarks than antiquarks, asks Hawking. Why not an equal number of each? He answers, "It is certainly fortunate for us that the numbers are unequal because, if they had been the same, nearly all the quarks and antiquarks would have annihilated each other in the early universe and left a universe filled with radiation but hardly any matter."
The book contains two chapters on black holes. Chapter six is entitled "Black Holes"; chapter seven is entitled "Black Holes Ain't So Black." Only a scholar on top of his subject matter with a fine sense of humor would risk a title like that.
The behavior of black holes, according to Hawking, is much like entropy. Lest the reader fail to grasp his meaning, Hawking adds, "It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves. One has only to stop making repairs around the house to see that."
Hawking's evaluation of what is and is not important in cosmic evolution is puzzling and humorous:
Within only a few hours of the big bang, the production of helium and other elements would have stopped. And after that, for the next few million years or so, the universe would have just continued expanding, without anything much happening.
His references to God often have curious twists. In one place, he wonders why God chose to start the universe "in such an incomprehensible way" and then let it "evolve according to laws that we could understand."
If we can ever develop a "complete, consistent, unified theory"—a theory that accounts for gravitational force, electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force that is responsible for radioactivity, and the strong nuclear force that holds the quarks together in the proton and neutron—concludes Hawking, that is "only the first step." Our goal is "a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence." For Hawking, the ultimate question is: "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"
This section contains 1,831 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)