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Stephen Hawking And The Beginning Of The Universe:

An examination of the modern argument on the existence of God
By J. Mario L. Guarña III

In the spring of 1963, a 21-year old university student at Cambridge was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease that made doctors believe that he had only a couple of years more to live. He was then in his first year of his doctoral studies in physics and cosmology. Rather than finding it pointless to continue, he went on to complete his doctorate in 1966, with the support of his parents and inspired by a new interest in a girl who became his wife. Surprisingly, he survived. He lives on to this day, although paralyzed and equipped with an electronic voice, a distinguished professor of mathematics and physics whom the world now regards as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein. He is Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and author of arguably the most popular book of its genre A Brief History of Time.

A Brief History of Time is a continuation of the ideas that started to engage his attention as he was preparing for his dissertation in Cambridge. He was influenced by the studies of a British mathematician who was also in Cambridge at the time, Roger Penrose, regarding the possible existence of what was exotically called a singularity. Penrose theorized that a star that collapses under its own gravity would inevitably shrink into a zero size, a singularity in other words. Hawking used this insight to develop the idea that, like a collapsed star, the whole universe would have started from nothing, provided certain conditions inherent in his equations were fulfilled. Since the universe as he saw it satisfied these conditions, Hawking concluded that the universe started as a singularity. This was the moment of creation implicit in the hot dense state scientists were already talking about as the big bang. Flushed with his discovery of the analytical tools to handle such a notion, he proudly stated to the people in his confidence – I am talking about the beginning of the universe.

I

The scientific theory that the universe had a beginning is of recent vintage. By the second decade of the 20th century, Albert Einstein was revolutionizing physics with his general and special theory of relativity. Even then, he remained under the sway of the prevailing scientific dogma that the universe was fixed, static and unchanging. When he saw in his equations the seeds of the destruction of that dogma, he could not bring himself to accept what they meant – that because of the pervasive force of gravity, the universe would one day come to a crunch and collapse into nothing. How Einstein tried to go around this difficulty was sheer genius. He introduced in his equations a factor that he called the cosmological constant to balance the force of gravity. Hence, he was able to preserve the notion of a static universe, theoretically, because the cosmological constant was purely a mathematical concept devised by him, a deus ex machina of his equations. Did it correspond to any existing reality? Years after his death, scientists will be heard to say that it does. They now have reason to believe that there is a negative side to gravity that causes it to be repulsive under peculiar conditions, and it is so powerful that it not only balances but overwhelms the attraction of matter and compels the universe to expand forever. But that is getting outside our story.

It took a Russian physicist named Alexander Friedmann, in 1922, to accept Einstein’s equations at face value. He sent his observations to the master that the expansion of the universe could not be avoided by the cosmological constant, provided that the universe was symmetrical in structure, meaning that it would look the same in whatever direction and from whatever vantage point one looked, like a dotted balloon that grows in size but looks the same from whatever dot one is observing. Friedmann did not live long enough to see his hypothesis confirmed. In 1929, an American astronomer Edwin Hubble trained the 100-inch telescope of the Mount Wilson Observatory in California at the night sky and gathered data that showed that all the galaxies were rushing away from earth and at a speed that was greater the more distant the galaxy was. This was the smoking gun needed to prove that the universe was expanding, and it was hailed as the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century. Einstein was forced to remove the cosmological constant from his equations and rue the day he had thought of it.

II

So the universe is expanding. The implication should be obvious even to a schoolboy. If the universe is expanding, it must be smaller in the past than in the present. Following a basic law in thermodynamics that a system increases in temperature as it decreases in size, it was concluded that as time regressed, the universe would be smaller and hotter. The Friedmann model calculates that at some time in the past, probably between 10 to 15 billion years ago, the distance between the galaxies was zero. There had been attempts to avoid the conclusion of a singularity, but they only succeeded in showing that there could have been a singularity. Hawking set out to prove that the universe should have had a big bang – a beginning of time. The answer contained in his thesis in Cambridge acknowledged its roots in the work of his mentor and friend Penrose.

Penrose argued that any body undergoing gravitational collapse must eventually lead to a singularity. One of the conditions of his theorem was that the universe be infinite in space. Hawking realized that the feature of an infinite space can also characterize a Friedmann-like universe that is based on symmetry, a universe that need not revert to a crunch but can, in fact, go on forever. Hawking used Penrose’s theorem to prove that the expanding universe had a singularity by assuming that it was expanding fast enough to avoid collapsing again. The universe must be expanding forever in order to be infinite in space.

A few years after graduating from Cambridge, Hawking collaborated with Penrose to refine the mathematical framework of the theory. They came out eventually with a joint paper that suggested that the universe must have started with a big bang singularity on the basis of the assumption that the universe is expanding forever. Indeed, future discoveries will confirm that the universe is behaving in this manner - all the matter in the universe is not strong enough to halt the relentless outward push of space.

Hawking’s work contributed to the popularity of the notion of the big bang which the Catholic Church had pronounced to be in accordance with the Bible. The idea that the universe had a beginning in the big bang gave legitimacy to the scholastic doctrine of the existence of a first cause – a supernatural intelligence who willed the universe into existence, a God creating the space and time in which we all live. In 1981, the Jesuits in the Vatican organized a conference of experts to advise them on cosmological issues, and to this gathering, Hawking went. At the end of the meeting, they were granted an audience with the Pope who told them that it was alright to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but not the big bang itself – because it was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God.

By this time, Hawking already had a change of mind and was single-mindedly at work in threshing out the implications of a new idea. It will seem, in a nutshell, that as we get closer and closer to the moment of the big bang, the universe gets smaller, hotter and denser. The point will be reached when the universe becomes a billion times smaller than a grain of sand. We shall have entered the strange, mysterious world of the sub-atomic particle where a new and different level of reality lurks - the quantum state. In this state, according to Hawking, the universe had begun, a world completely contained in a continuum where there is no singularity. It simply would be. Hawking thus asks – What place is there for a creator?

III

In a Brief History of Time, Hawking coins a name for this idea - the no-boundary proposal. He immediately apologizes for it, saying that he has no experimental data to verify it and puts it forward initially for aesthetic reasons. The objective of Hawking is to do away with the notion of a singularity. The singularity is a point where all the familiar laws of science no longer apply so that we may have to appeal to an external agency like God to get things going. This is what Hawking will not accept. He hypothesizes that when the size of the universe becomes unimaginably small, it may be akin to a four-dimensional fireball. The quantum state will have one more than the familiar three dimensions of space because, at this extremely early moment before the universe evolved, time as we know it ceases to exist and is simply another aspect of space. This time-become-space notion is conveyed by the words imaginary time. Imaginary time is perceived to be different than our real time in that in the quantum state, if we happen to be tiny enough to inhabit it, we can move backward and forward. In real time, we can go only in one direction - from past to present to future. A cup that falls from the table onto the floor will splatter, but we cannot expect it to go back to the table and unsplatter, unless by outside intervention. In the quantum state, a cup can go from the unsplattered to the splattered to the unsplattered depending on its location in the four-dimensional space continuum.

Hawking speculates that if this was how the quantum state behaved early on, the universe need not begin in a singularity - understood as an event before which there was nothing. At any point in the continuum, the universe as we know it would have just emerged. There is no boundary or edge to the universe at which we will have to postulate the existence of God to prescribe the initial conditions – how things would have started.

Hawking realizes that with the no-boundary proposal, he has completely undone the results of his earlier work in Cambridge on the singularity. He finds himself in the awkward position of convincing others to abandon the world-view he had earlier espoused, once quantum effects are taken into account. In dealing with quantum reality, Hawking has become increasingly difficult to understand. This is most certainly due to the nature of the subject. The American physicist Richard Feynman once remarked with a bit of irony that if only a dozen men had understood Einstein’s theory of relativity, not one would know what quantum mechanics is.  We cannot visualize anymore the quantum aspect of the universe Hawking is describing, having nothing in our everyday experience to compare it to. But to his credit, it has been said that the poverty of our imagination is a sign that we are now going down to the ultimate levels of reality for which there are no local analogies. Hawking articulates that the universe was one that would not be created or destroyed but would just be.

Have we reached the final matryoshka doll ?

IV

In one of his public lectures after writing A Brief History of Time, Hawking suggests that the universe emerged from its state in imaginary time some 15 billion years ago. In the beginning, then, we can, as he says, treat the universe as if it is a quantum particle subject to the laws of quantum mechanics. From this simple realization, Hawking has come up with an alternative to the theory and dogma of creation.

The idea of the quantum started with the German scientist Max Planck at the turn of the 20th century. It was already known that light and other electromagnetic disturbances travel in a wavelike manner. Planck suggested that the energy carried by a light wave comes in lumps called quanta. The minimum amount of energy of a wave depends on its frequency, which means that one quantum of violet light which has twice the frequency of red light carries twice the energy of one quantum of red light. The energy of light increases in direct proportion to its frequency.

A French nobleman Louis de Broglie, in the meantime,  extended the insight on the nature of light to matter. He said that like light, matter has the character of a wave, and this notion was confirmed in 1927 by laboratory experiments that showed that the negatively charged constituent of an atom - the electron – behaved like a wave. The question is – a wave of what? To grapple with this question, the science of quantum mechanics was born.

The quantum particle of which the electron is an example is smaller than the wavelength of light and hence, can no longer be observed with accuracy. In order to observe a thing, we have to shoot at least one quantum of light at it, and if it is as small as an electron, it will be disturbed. We cannot know the location or movement of the electron until we try to observe it, but if we do, we can know only one value at the expense of the other. If we pinpoint its location, we lose hope of ascertaining its direction, and if we ascertain how fast it is going, we will not know where it is.

The strange behavior of the quantum particle is expressed in a formula known as the uncertainty principle devised by the German scientist Werner Heisenberg in 1926. It drew scientists and philosophers alike into a debate about what is really going on before the particle is observed. Einstein believes that the problem lies in the inadequacy of our powers of observation. A quantum particle is still a material thing that, despite our not knowing it, has a definite position and velocity. But the pioneers of quantum mechanics say otherwise. The uncertainty is believed to be built into the fabric of quantum reality. A quantum particle has no definite position or velocity until it is measured, and the best we can do is to state the probability that the particle will be here at one moment and there at the other. The famous Schrodinger equation was able to fix the probability that it will be in one position from the probability that it was in another at some other moment, but no more. Schrodinger himself suggested that the electron is smeared out across the entire wave and does the waving, but the notion could not stand up to the experimental data.

Max Born, Schrodinger’s colleague and a Nobel prize winner, has made the only conclusion acceptable to scientists – the quantum particle before it is observed is a wave of probability. It is more than anything else a mathematical construct with some very weird features. The wave possesses a non-zero value throughout all of space. It extends everywhere in the universe. It means that even if it is almost certain that the electron will be found in one corner of the laboratory, there is the probability, although very slim, that it may be found also at the other end of the universe.

The probability wave of an object or particle comes by a fancier name – the wave function. One approach would have the wave function of the electron evolve according to Schrodinger’s equation until the moment when it is observed and it collapses to a single point. By conceptualizing the universe as a quantum particle, Hawking postulates that the wave function of the universe must consist of an infinite set of possible universes and that the fact that our universe exists is a sign that the wave function is large with respect to our universe. But as Hawking concedes, it is only an assumption. Nobody has worked out the mathematics that would show that our universe is among the most probable of universes – more probable than other universes which might be more beautiful than ours but do not contain the conditions essential for life.

Like the big bang theory, Hawking’s cosmology is a description of creation out of nothing. The difference is that the hypothesis may have to require an infinity of time to pan out for our universe to come into existence out of nothing. But there is no time as we know it before our universe was created. It must be for this reason that Hawking had advanced imaginary time as an additional dimension of the quantum state in which our universe popped into existence. As it is pointed out, this is only speculation. There is no known way of proving it.

The existential question has been subtly crafted into what is now called the many worlds hypothesis. The idea behind this proposal is that wave functions do not collapse. Instead, every potential outcome in a wave function is fulfilled in its own separate universe. There are allegedly countless parallel universes in which anything that quantum mechanics predicts would happen will happen. If a wave function says that the electron can be here or there, then in one universe a version of the electron is here and in another universe another version of the electron will be there. The wave function of the universe is said to give rise to countless universes as the inevitable outcome of its evolution. But again, we have no empirical validation for the theory. The existence of universes other than our own is purely hypothetical. Some say it is merely the figment of imagination.

In the ultimate analysis, we are confronted with the same recurring question of whether the natural world had originated from chance or is the product of an intelligent design or creation and, as in the past, empirical science offers us no final answers. We still must rely, in good measure, on philosophical reasoning.

A debate recently conducted by Time Magazine between two prominent scientists has underscored the existence of the so-called fundamental constants of nature to prove how finely tuned our universe is towards the production of life. By far the most significant of these constants is the gravitational constant. It ensures that the universe will expand at just the right rate to allow enough time for the conditions of life on our planet to emerge. If the value is off by only one part in ten billion, our universe will either revert to a crunch or expand so fast that life cannot exist. Looking at this evidence, Francis Collins, head of the monumental project that mapped the human genome, opined that it is very difficult to believe that all this is just chance or coincidence. But if one is willing to consider the possibility of design or creation, it becomes a plausible explanation for what is an improbable event – our human existence.

Not to Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor famous for his polemics against religion as a source of truth. An adherent of the many worlds hypothesis, Dawkins explains that there should be out there a large number of universes and that the odds are that some of them will have the right fine-tuning. So, Collins says, everything comes down to a choice of whether there are an infinity of universes which we cannot observe or there is a God who has planned or designed the creation of the world. We can use the doctrine of Occam’s razor, which is a principle of economy, to justify our acceptance of the more simple and forthright explanation, one which leads us to believe in God rather than in an infinity of universes.

But what is far more significant, as Collins observes, is that if we are open to the existence of God, we can readily see how many aspects of the universe will be consistent with this belief, and how faith in a supreme creator can help us appreciate values like truth, love, virtue and character - values which science cannot help us find.

V

Hawking, it has been said, does not consider himself an atheist. He protests against the label and considers himself, at best, an agnostic or deist. In contrast, his wife Jane Wilde is a Christian, and trying as much as possible to get away from the academic discipline that her husband dominates, earned a doctorate in – Medieval Portuguese Literature. But she does not hesitate to tell how much her faith in God has given her the will to marry Hawking and see herself through the personal crisis caused by his failing health. It is, indeed, tragic that in limiting himself to things he can reduce to a mathematical equation or formula, Hawking has ignored the reality of truths that made his life an enduring inspiration to all.




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