IDEAS

Glimpses of God

A scientific genius grapples with Creation

RIC DOLPHIN September 19 1988
IDEAS

Glimpses of God

A scientific genius grapples with Creation

RIC DOLPHIN September 19 1988

Glimpses of God

A scientific genius grapples with Creation

IDEAS

In an ordinary academic office overlooking an ordinary parking lot sits an extraordinary man with his head in the stars. Physically, Stephen W. Hawking, 46, professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, England, could scarcely be more terrestrial. Afflicted for 25 years with a progressive and incurable neurological disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Hawking has withered. He can no longer talk and has lost practically all muscle control. He is constantly attended by nurses, one of whom sits with him in his office. But behind the slack-jawed countenance lives a brain that has been compared to Einstein’s and Galileo’s—a brain capable of somersaulting through space and time. And with the first three fingers of his twisted right hand, Hawking has just enough movement to work his wheelchair-mounted computer, through which his thoughts are converted into a tinny, American-accented voice synthesizer. Why was the universe formed, he is asked. “If I knew that,” he told Maclean’s, “there would be nothing else to find out. I would know the mind of

God — which I don’t claim to know.”

What Hawking does claim to know something about is how the universe came into being. His reputation in the arcane scientific field known as cosmology has lately blossomed outside its usual aca_

demie realm. Hawking’s latest book, A Brief History of Time, which in 198 pages marries Einstein’s general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics in an attempt to explain the formation of the universe, has become a publishing phenomenon. It has topped the nonfiction best-seller lists this summer in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. According to Albert Zuckerman, Hawking’s New York City literary agent, Bantam Books Inc. of New York City has already shipped 500,000 copies of the book across North

America. “We can’t keep it in stock,” said Paul McFedries, buyer for the Toronto retail outlet that calls itself the World’s Biggest Bookstore. “We’ve sold 500 copies of the book since June, and the peak book season hasn’t started yet.” Rarely, if ever, has a book so hard to understand sold so well. Even those involved in its publication admit difficulty with the book’s content, which touches such things as universal gravitation, the expanding universe, quarks—a type of subatomic particle—and “naked singularities,” areas of infinite density in the universe. Peter Guzzardi, a Bantam editor who spent two years editing Hawking’s words into something that he hoped would be accessible to a wide reading public, openly admits that he still has difficulty understanding all of Hawking’s book. “But

Explanations for the success of Hawking’s book range from curiosity to the mystical. Bantam London’s press manager, Jeannette Wilford, describes Hawking as the ideal combination of human-interest story and genius. “People have been so taken by him,” she said. “He is so physically disabled but has this fantastic brain.” Bantam New York’s publicity director, Sally Williams, said: “My own personal theory is that people are keenly interested in things that offer an alternative vision of reality. Many people believe that Hawking is offering them the closest glimpse of God they may ever have.”

in my mind,” he said in an interview, “I at least came up with the shapes of things—a great improvement over my previous ideas about little nuclei with little things spinning around them.” Said Mark Barty-King, managing director and publisher of Bantam Press, the company’s London subsidiary: “It takes me a long time to work out what Hawking is getting at, at times. I feel that I would need to read the book 500 times to fully comprehend it.”

In his book, Hawking presents in a relatively simplified form a concept known as the grand unified theory. After outlining the history of cosmological thought from ancient times to the present, Hawking takes readers into a mirrored world of advanced physics that seeks to unite the four physical forces binding the universe. He also seeks to explain

what happened in the moment of the socalled Big Bang, the fiery instant in history when the universe was set into motion. Isaac Newton described one of the forces, gravity, 300 years ago. It was further developed in this century by the great German-born American scientist, Albert Einstein, to create a model for a universe that is curved in space and time.

The later concept of quantum mechanics involves itself with the other end of the scale where three forces—the electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces— hold together atoms. Grand unified theory— which exists only in the minds of leading theoretical physicists—attempts to explain how all of those forces acted in that first millisecond. In doing so, such theories go one vast step further than Einstein’s. Although Einstein produced a model of how the universe grew out of the Big Bang, he was unable to explain how subatomic forces came into being.

Einstein continued to believe that, at a fundamental level, nothing random can exist. But Hawking and some other contemporary cosmologists have drawn on the possibility of random events postulated by quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Einstein had rejected such randomness, declaring, “God does not play dice.” Hawking has countered, “God not only does play dice, but he hides his dice.”

Because of that limitation, Einstein and other scientists of his period were only able to describe the development of the universe from the Big Bang onward. Hawking, by adding a random component, can speculate on what caused the universe to develop. As a result, he says that the four dimensions accepted in modem physics—three of space and one of time—may have grown out of any number of dimensions that originally existed. In the first milliseconds of creation, those extra dimensions—inconceivable except in the equations of mathematicians—curled up or flipped over into the dimensions we know. The dimension of time, nonexistent before that moment, came into being. And the four forces of the universe—taking the form of invisible, subatomic so-called superstrings— comprise the atoms, stars, planets and galaxies that form the expanding universe, a universe both finite and without boundaries as we know them.

In dismissing the common-sense concept of time having always existed, Hawking enters what was once considered difficult territory. The Russian-American physicist George Gamow, when asked in the 1950s what had happened before the Big Bang, replied, “Hell is reserved for people who ask such questions.” But Hawking has alleviated his fate somewhat by subscribing in part to the dictum of the fourth-century Christian philosopher Saint Augustine, who speculated that time is a property of the universe that God created but which did not exist before the beginning of the universe.

Hawking describes God more as a possibility than a probability and beyond the grasp of man. When considering what he calls the

“boundary conditions” at the beginning of time, Hawking writes: “One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way,-why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.” In his conclusion, however, Hawking leaves the door open. “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” he asks. “Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator and, if so, does he have any other effect on

the universe? And who created him?”

Most of Hawking’s fellow scientists clearly find his reasoning compelling. One of them, Werner Israel, 56, a University of Alberta physicist who has coedited two academic books with Hawking, said that “the subtlety and power of his arguments are without parallel in mathematical physics,” adding, “His vision of creation is too beautiful not to be true.” Edward Kolb, a physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Batavia, 111., said: “It’s like Michael Jordan playing basketball. No one can tell Jordan what moves to make. It’s intuition. Hawking has a remarkable amount of intuition.”

Through the years, Hawking has also displayed remarkable perseverance. The son of a London doctor, Hawking became an undistinguished, though popular, physics student at Oxford. He later moved to Cambridge for postgraduate work in cosmology because, as

he once said, “it really did seem to involve the big question: where did the universe come from?” Hawking’s universe almost fell apart in 1963 when his illness, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the American baseball player who was stricken with it, was diagnosed. At first, Hawking was given only two years to live.

But even though the disease has reduced Hawking almost to a state of mute quadriplegia, he has defied medical predictions. In 1965, he married a language student named Jane Wilde; the couple now have three children. Meanwhile, Hawking launched himself into a challenging postgraduate project, involving the phenomenon of black holes, with British theoretician Roger Penrose, and later began teaching and writing. Hawking seems unconcerned about his own fate. Asked what he thinks will become of him after he dies, Hawking, displaying matter-of-fact wit, said,

“I will probably be cremated and my ashes will be recycled.”

His A Brief History of Time is the culmination of a long-standing desire to make his work more accessible to a mass audience. “My original aim was to write a book that would sell on airport bookstalls,” he recalled. He was contacted in 1983 by Zuckerman, whose brother-in-law, an American scientist, had told him about Hawking. Zuckerman suggested that Hawking collaborate with another writer in writing a book. But Hawking, who is known for his stubbornness, would only allow an editor. Three New York publishers bid amounts in the region of $500,000 as an advance on the work, but Hawking says that he decided to choose Bantam because of its reputation as a publisher of popular nonfiction works.

The easy sale to a publisher in New York City contrasted sharply with the book’s recep-

tion in London. Four major publishers turned it down because the subject was too esoteric. Bantam’s Barty-King finally advanced Hawking $60,000 after beating down Hawking’s demand for $150,000. Now, with his book expected to sell an unprecedented 150,000 copies in Britain by Christmas, the other British publishers are wistful. “I’m kicking myself like hell,” said Century Hutchinson managing director Anthony Cheetham. “My mistake was thinking that the reader would lose the arguments two-thirds of the way through and that this mattered.” When the book was finally launched in London in June, Hawking delightedly informed a group of booksellers that in the United States his work had already pushed a book about clairvoyance in the White House, by President Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff, Donald Regan, off the top of The New York Times best-seller list. “Cosmology,” Hawking de-

clared, “has finally beaten out astrology.” Now, Hawking is gamely bearing up to the rigors of being a celebrity, touring the globe to give lectures and attending cocktail parties where he occasionally drinks a glass of wine. In the past six months, his travels have taken him to Switzerland, the United States and the Soviet Union. He told Maclean’s that his book has sold better than even he had anticipated. Currently continuing his work on the unification theory, Hawking is also considering another foray into the world of popular nonfiction. “It would be hard to write an equal to A Brief History of Time,” he said. “If I do write another book, it will probably be my autobiography.” It seems likely that Hawking’s newfound public would find such a story as dazzling as his insights into the cosmos.

RIC DOLPHIN