Tuesday, 4 March 2008

"There was also no mention of super-string theory but perhaps that's no bad thing."

Professor Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly a genius. The present Lucasian Professor of Mathematics has furthered the popularisation of theoretical physics, done tremendous research into black holes, and come up with a neat description of the universe as analogous to the surface of a sphere. His achievements are naturally made all the more impressive by his constant struggle with motor neuron disease. He’s an intellectual personality; the poster boy for late 20th Century science that Einstein was for the early 20th Century.

However the documentary Channel 4 aired about him last night was rather unfair. The main insinuation was that he was on a lone quest to come up with the Theory of Everything that physics strives for. The programme repeatedly mentioned Hawking and Hawking’s discoveries to the neglect of the thousands of other scientists whose research has led us to the position we occupy today. The only other notable physicist mentioned was Roger Penrose. It seems unfair to not acknowledge that science is a collaborative effort made possible only by the work of people working in tandem all over the globe.

Science cannot work with just one person striving towards discovery. The days of men like Galileo working alone against the crowd are over. Modern physics is a world of research papers, intense debate, and trial & error. People bounce theories off each other, improve on them, and eventually unify with opposing theories to explain everything as best they can.

Last night’s documentary seemed to imply that Hawking was entirely responsible for the theory that the Big Bang occurred with a singularity, which he wasn’t: working with Penrose he just proved it mathematically possible for a singularity to exist. The Big Bang theory has been around for considerably longer, probably since the phenomenon of red shift was discovered, if not before. The programme stated that Hawking is looking for a theory of quantum gravity without noting that Feynman has already made a proposal regarding quantum gravity (although admittedly it is rather contentious). Worst of all (for someone who has studied time travel as excessively as I have) there was no mention of the dimension of time at all: strange considering the entire chapter in Hawking’s best-selling book on ‘The Arrow of Time’. Relativity theory was said to demonstrate that large bodies bend space which is not entirely accurate; large bodies like stars and planets bend spacetime, the four-dimensional construct that forms the universe.

Stephen Hawking is perhaps best known for his work on black holes which is fine however he is not single-handedly paving the way for the Grand Unified Theory. It must be remembered that he is one single physicist and although he may be a genius, it’s only through scientific collaboration that we are getting close to an ultimate theory.

As a postscript, it seems worth mentioning Hawking’s stance on philosophy. At the very end of ‘A Brief History of Time’ he mentions that it is the philosophers’ job to explain the ‘why’ of the universe because science is close to explaining the ‘how’. He chastises philosophers for not being able to keep up with the trends of science and so not doing their job properly. To a certain extent this is true; a lot of philosophers would rather read Confucius than Einstein, but it’s worth remembering that science is nothing more than a tangential offshoot of philosophy: it was only sometime in the 16th Century that Francis Bacon’s scientific method began the branching of empirical science away from ‘natural philosophy’ as it was known back then. Until the Philosopher Kings are put in place and both science and religion are amalgamated back into philosophy where they belong, maybe scientists should endeavour to keep up with philosophical advances; that way some of the fallacies from documentaries like last night’s could be avoided.

No comments: