By Russell Stannard (March 22, 2006)
Short and sweet: Hawking offers a briefer history of the cosmos."
Short and sweet: Hawking offers a briefer history of the cosmos. -->
• Stephen W. Hawking's Web site
There are two things I especially recall about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time — the earlier version of this new book, A Briefer History of Time. The first is that as a popular introduction to modern science, it simply did not work. Fortunately, twice is a charm.
Time and again, one could point to instances in the first version where the author would have lost the nonscientific reader or where the new ideas were coming so thick and fast that the reader would have had literary indigestion. Not for nothing, it came to be widely known as the least-read bestseller of all time.
I also reckon that the various publishers who had originally rejected the original manuscript were — strictly speaking — correct in their judgment that it wouldn’t appeal to many. Although subsequently, in the face of the enormous commercial success of the book, they must have kicked themselves.
So, the first question to ask about the new version is whether there has been any improvement. The answer is a resounding yes.
Here is a book I would not hesitate to recommend as a good introduction to the subject of time. In fact, one cannot help wondering why it is so much better. Could it be the influence of Hawking’s co-author Leonard Mlodinow — who previously wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and the children’s series The Kids of Einstein Elementary? Or does some of the credit go to the 27 people listed in the “Acknowledgements” as having “searched for passages where clarity could be improved further?” No matter where credit is due, we must be grateful for the outcome.
The improvement has been brought about by a more careful, leisurely explanation in the treatment of curved space, for example. There is a better organization of subject matter. And topics such as pulsars, spinning black holes and the arrow of time — which were not really central to the main theme — have been omitted. There is also less emphasis on Hawking’s own speculation about imaginary time.
All this has allowed for the introduction of new material on dark matter and dark energy to bring the book up to date. One should also mention that the use of beautiful, full-color illustrations makes the book an attractive read. Whether it was justified to devote a new chapter to fanciful ideas about wormholes and time travel, I leave to the reader to decide.
So far so good, but what about the other thing I remembered from the earlier version? That was the rhetorical question to be found on page 141: “What place then for a creator?” This remark — widely interpreted as damaging to religious belief — was prompted by Hawking suggesting that as one imagines going back in time toward the big bang, it might be that the character of time changes. It kind of “melts away” to become more like the spatial dimensions — this is the imaginary time notion. If this were the case, then there would be no initial instant, t = 0, at which the universe began. And if the universe had no beginning, it would require no cause of the big bang.
Indeed, one does not need to invoke Hawking’s imaginary time to see there is something wrong with the idea of a creator God who at first exists alone then decides to create a universe and lights the fuse. There is a bang, and we are on our way.
The “traditional” big-bang theory itself is held to mark not only the coming into existence of the contents of the universe but also of space and time. That being so, there was no time before the big bang and hence no preexisting cause of the big bang, be it a god or any other agency.
As theologians were quick to point out when the first book appeared, Hawking was making a common mistake in confusing the words “origins” and “creation.” If one is interested in origins, then one is asking how the universe started or originated. As such, that is a scientific question and lies within the domain of science.
On the other hand, if one is concerned about creation, one is addressing an entirely different question: Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is as much concerned with why we exist now and what keeps us in existence as it is with any first instant of time, if there was one. For that reason, theologians have always coupled the notion of God as creator with God as sustainer. God’s creativity has to be at work at all times.
The creation question lies outside the province of science. Science does the immensely useful and powerful job of explaining the workings of the world it is presented with. But why the world is the way it is rather than some other type of world, or why there is a world at all, science remains silent. Thus, the answer to Hawking’s question is that God’s creator role remains what it always was and is.
It follows that I was keen to discover whether Hawking had taken note of that earlier criticism. Unhappily, he has not. The misguided, misleading question is posed once more — at the bottom of page 103, if you are interested.
What a pity. It is a blemish that spoils for me an otherwise fine book.
Russell Stannard is an emeritus professor of physics at the Open University in London.