A popular look at physics today

A Briefer History of Time By Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow Bantam, 2005 Hardcover, 176 pp., $25

If you aren’t a scientist but seek to understand the latest theories of physics, then this book is for you. In “A Briefer History of Time” Hawking clarifies, in a popular way, the theories of the Big Bang origin of the Universe, the special and general theories of relativity, quantum theory, black holes, and what physics has to say about time travel and string theory.

While in general the book is a very good read, in Chapter 3, Hawking goes somewhat astray. He tries to explain the nature of a scientific theory. Along with many other physicists unschooled in the class struggle, he cites Karl Popper and the “falsification” doctrine as the source of the proper definition of a scientific theory. This has present-day relevance in light of the “intelligent design” struggles. Hawking has good intentions in this area, but as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. For example, at one point he cites Darwinian evolution favorably, but somehow winds up in the social-Darwinist camp.

Hawking discusses how classical relativity theory is only consistent with either an expanding or contracting universe. In the case of an expanding universe, time began, he says, with the “big bang.” In the other case, that of a contracting universe, time will end, he says, at the moment of the “big crunch,” at that moment the universe collapse into nothingness. For the Marxists, both possibilities must be ruled out: time is infinite and the universe cannot originate from nothing nor collapse into nothing.

In the last chapter, Hawking reviews the questions that humans have always asked about the nature of the universe and our place in it. He discusses how the discovery of the laws that govern the structure and behavior of this universe has led mankind to adopt the scientific view. Later, he reviews the quantum-mechanical evidence that led us to discount Laplacian determinism, which is viewed as an example of the philosophical trend known as “mechanistic materialism” in Marxist literature.

But Hawking holds out an interesting possibility. He envisages a unified theory in which gravity is combined with the uncertainty principle, and which “space and time together might form a finite, four-dimensional space without singularities or boundaries, like the surface of the earth only with more dimensions.” He takes off from this scenario to raise questions like, “How much freedom did God (sic) have in constructing the universe?”

It seems to this reviewer that Hawking is a closet atheist. He never comes openly out to say that God does not exist; instead, he raises questions that can have only one answer — and that is the answer of scientific materialism.

There have been dozens of efforts to popularize science in general, and physics in particular. Recently, a number of leading string theorists have written books on the subject. While more work needs to be done, Hawking’s book is a step in the right direction.