Black Holes and Baby Universes

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the great surprises of recent publishing history was the extraordinary success of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, which, since its publication in 1988, has sold more than five and a half million copies, been translated into thirty-three languages, and entered the Guiness Book of Records for appearing more weeks on the London Times’ best-seller list than any previous book. In many ways Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays is a sequel to A Brief History of Time, since it seeks to satisfy readers’ curiosity about Hawking’s personal history generated by the popularity of his account of the universe’s history. He wrote A Brief History of Time to raise money to pay for his daughter’s school fees and to inform the general public that cosmologists were discovering wondrous things about the nature and structure of the universe. He wrote Black Holes and Baby Universes to pay for his nurses and to show that ordinary people can understand the really big questions about the universe—How did it begin? Where is it going? If, when, and how will it end? Hawking’s new book contains items from talks and articles he composed between 1976 and 1992. They range from two autobiographical sketches through his analysis of A Brief History of Time’s success to a series of essays detailing his past and present views on cosmogony and cosmology. The book concludes with an interview, “Desert Island Discs,” in which Hawking gives, interspersed with autobiographical reminiscences, an account of some of his favorite classical (Mozart’s Requiem) and popular (the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”) recordings.

Since it is unlikely that Hawking will ever write a full- fledged Autobiography, the memoirs contained in this book are probably the closest we are likely to get to Hawking’s view of his own life. In this they are similar to Albert Einstein’s Autobiographical Notes in both authors’ reluctance to deal with personal matters and in their enthusiasm for detailing the evolution of their scientific ideas. Though these limitations seriously curtail the usefulness of Hawking’s reminiscences for scholars and those interested in probing deeply into his character, they are nevertheless full of insights into his own life and times and those of twentieth century cosmology. He sprinkles his essays with humor, references to popular culture, and well-directed barbs meant to deflate pomposities in and out of science. Indeed, one of the reasons for the great popularity of his talks and writings is his talent for luring the reader into sharing his passion for exploring the most profound truths about this universe. As a companion with Hawking on these voyages of his intellect and imagination, the reader comes to share the author’s sense of wonder about the strange phenomena in our cosmos, including black holes that are not really black, imaginary time that has nothing to do with the imagination (but that founds a universe that has not been created and will not be destroyed), and baby universes, small, self-contained worlds that fickly branch off from our region of the cosmos (and may just as fickly join on again).

In his role as cosmic messenger, Hawking sees himself as an heir to Galileo Galilei, who himself explored the universe with his telescope and wrote about it in his Sidereus Nuncius (1610), which has been translated as The Messenger from the Stars. Hawking likes to note that he was born on January 8, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. He was born into a time as turbulent as Galileo’s. England was in the midst of World War II, and because a German bomb almost hit his parents’ London house, his mother gave birth to Stephen in Oxford, where his father had studied medicine and where his mother had studied philosophy, politics, and economics. (The Germans had agreed not to bomb Oxford and Cambridge if the British did not bomb Heidelberg and Gottingen.) His mother remembers Stephen as a normal boy in most respects, though he learned to read much later than his sisters. He recalls that he loved trains and enjoyed building model airplanes and boats. In his analysis of these early interests he sees the same motivation to know how things work and to control them that exists in his adult work in cosmology. Knowledge, for him, became a form of control.

After the war’s end, he went to school in St. Albans and then to University College at Oxford, where his father had become an expert in tropical medicine but where Stephen studied mathematics and physics, much to his father’s displeasure. Lonely and infected by the lackadaisical attitude of many of his fellow students, Hawking worked, according to his own calculation, on average only an hour a day for the three years he was at Oxford. Toward the end of his time there, a number of things happened that radically altered his life. A fall downstairs that left him temporarily without memory caused him to see a doctor to have his reflexes tested. The doctor diagnosed Hawking as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease caused by the degeneration of the nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain that control voluntary muscular movement, while leaving the mind unaffected (it is called motor neurone disease in England and Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States). His mother was told that her son would probably be dead in about two to three years. Hawking was told that the disease was unpredictable but incurable. Unknown to Stephen, his father was trying all kinds of things to save his son, including getting in touch with the virologist D. Carleton Gajdusek (later to win a Nobel Prize), who had researched a related disease called kuru, a neurological disorder caused by a slow-acting virus and transmitted by cannibalism All these efforts, however, proved fruitless.

After getting a first-class degree from Oxford, Hawking went to the University of Cambridge to pursue doctoral studies in cosmology, but his disease initially progressed so rapidly that he saw little reason to work diligently since he expected to be dead before he could receive his doctorate. As time went on, however, the disease slowed down, and he met Jane Wilde, who helped him to see that his life was worth living and that he could actually do the many things he wanted to do. After their marriage in 1965, he also had to plan for a job and the family that they both desired. With Jane’s encouragement, he was able to master Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which explains gravitational effects in terms of the curvature of space, and to make progress in his own research on singularities, which result from powerful gravitational forces that cause matter to have infinite density in an infinitesimal volume. Hawking believed that the history of a massive star ended in a catastrophic collapse that continued until a singularity of infinite density was reached. Since such a collapse could result in a black hole, Hawking’s work on singularities and black holes was closely connected.

Black holes are extremely small regions of space-time with a gravitational field so intense that nothing can escape, not even light. (John Wheeler coined the name when he got tired of calling them “gravitationally completely collapsed objects.”) To do creative...

(The entire section is 3020 words.)