December 21, 2010


Despite the hectic demands of the season, I’ve managed to finish the book I started, “Stephen Hawking: Quest for the Theory of Everything, by Kitty Ferguson (Blog: 12/9/10). It is a biography of the cosmological scientist who caused a sensation with his book, “A Brief History of Time” — which I also read but don’t pretend to understand. Ferguson does a better job providing a layman’s understanding of the laws of physics, though I still found them complicated. What I did learn was that Newton described the law of gravity but Einstein revolutionized Newton’s thinking. The big push in physics today is to unify the other forces in the universe — electromagnetism and strong force and weak forces — together with gravity in a manner that explains everything, including the world we see and the quantum world we don’t.

So far the only way to incorporate gravity with the other forces is to postulate a second universe were gravity has room to disappear. Please don’t ask me why.

String theory seems to be a promising way of unifying the forces. Strings of energy, not particles, are posited as the potential building blocks of the cosmos.  They are like rubber bands, sometimes circular in shape or sometimes cut in half but capable of vibrating to produce different resonances like strings played on a violin. The problem at the moment is that scientists have derived, not one viable string theory to describe the universe, but five. Some say so many explanations cast a suspicion on all of them. Others argue that several theories may be necessary to see the universe in all its dimensions, like the various ways of describing a penny: flat, round, front, back, thin, copper etc.     

Hawking calls his search for a unified theory of everything an attempt to peer into the mind of God. If he succeeds, we will discover how the universe works. But Hawking admits it won’t tell us why it exists. One mystery will be solved but a larger one will remain — a spiritual question for this spiritual season.