Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Hawking's Final Theory

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Two of the most popular scientists, by this I mean well known to the public are Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein. The reasons include their personal appeal as well as their research on fundamental questions about the universe. 
We all want to know "what's it's all about" -- how our cosmos came into being, evolves, ages, dies, what there was before, whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the observable universe. The kind of questions where common sense fails and about which reality tells other stories that are based on observable and theoretical evidence. The gap between reality and common sense is laden with heavy-duty mathematics.

Hawking's last collaborator, Thomas Hertog, in his book On the Origin of Time, is about Hawking's final theory. Hertog's PhD supervisor was Stephen Hawking so he ought to know something about Hawking and his ideas.  It is reviewed by philosopher and historian of science, Robert Crease, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University, Long Island, New York who has the credentials to review the book.  In the opening, Crease writes "I can't resist saying that it's about time" and I also can't resist quoting it here.

The review is short, critical and informed. Crease tells us that "It's a long and winding road to the "final theory" of the book's title. The closer we get, the more mathematical things become... The waymarkers are now similar to the unfathomable koans used in Zen teaching, such as the idea that "'once upon a time there was no time.'"  Crease includes a section on physics versus philosophy  Both Hertog and Hawking are harshly dismissive of philosophy.

This is Crease's final paragraph.

"By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but recall a remark by the Soviet physicist Lev Landau — which Hertog quotes rather dismissively and without attribution — that cosmologists are “often in error but never in doubt”. The remark seems spot on. Still, disciplinary arrogance aside, On the Origin of Time lets you enjoy the cosmologists, understand their theories and realize their flaws, yet sympathize with those whose confidence will soon be demolished. The book even makes you look forward to their next ‘final’ theory."

Here is the review from the British journal Nature.

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