Posts Tagged Stephen Hawking
As a science fiction writer, I usually find in necessary to keep up with much of the ground-breaking work that goes on in the fields of astronomy and particle physics and cosmology and all that other astronomical stuff, among others, and in many cases I wind up either reading the work of Stephen Hawking, or at least hearing about the latest research he’s done. He’s in his 70’s now, and has been afflicted with ALS since he was 21. At the time of his diagnosis, he wasn’t expected to live much past 25. But for some unknown reason, he’s lived with the disease for an almost outrageous number of years. I’ve been curious for a long time, how does he do it? Is there a specific reason why he hasn’t succumbed to the disease? Does he have some variant of the disease that lets the afflicted person live a long time? The vast majority of people with ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis) die within three to five years. So I looked up a little about ALS to see if there’s something to his longevity.
In the US we call it Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the baseball player who died of it in 1941, but in the UK, they call it motor neurone disease. ALS affects the motor neurons in the brain and the spinal cord which transmit impulses to the voluntary muscles throughout the body. It’s those voluntary muscles that do all the things we want to do, such as telling each finger what letter to press on a computer keyboard. Motor neurons also innervate the diaphragm, which is a part of breathing. That’s why we can take a voluntary deep breath. ALS can kill off the nerves that affect the diaphragm, and that results in breathing difficulty, and can be one of the contributing causes of death. Eventually, ALS begins to affect other neurons other than the motor neurons, and that can also be a cause of death.
But it seems there are various life expectancies within the general diagnosis of ALS. Most with the disease die within three to five years, but about twenty percent live five years after diagnosis, ten percent live ten years, and five percent can live twenty years or more. But Stephen Hawking has lived for almost fifty years with the disease, and, as far as I could tell, no one knows why. It may be that he has had excellent nursing care over the years, though no one really knows whether that’s an important factor in his longevity or not. Maybe it’s due to force of personality; he just refuses to give in to the disease. That seems unlikely, though. It’s doubtful that patients can voluntarily affect the course of the disease. In any event, he’s certainly an outlier; most patients don’t have any chance of living that long at all. He still does research and publishes papers, and has still made important contributions to cosmology. I wish I could do the same, even without the diagnosis.
Back in February, 2017, an interesting article appeared in that month’s issue of Scientific American. Written by Anna Ijjas, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Abraham Loeb, the authors presented some evidence for a “big bounce” in the life of our universe, rather than the much better known “big bang.” The universe as we know it is thought to have started by a rapid inflation of all matter and energy from a point so small it would fit inside an electron with room to spare. Thus the idea of the “big bang” was born, though it was probably a quiet “bang” since there wouldn’t have been any air around to transmit a sound. The authors of the article give some evidence (not overwhelming by any stretch of imagination) that the universe has been alternately expanding from a point, then contracting to another point and expanding again. Ad infinitum.
Well, later several other physicists, thirty-three to be exact, including Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth (who, by the way is the pioneer of the inflation theory) wrote a letter stating their opposition to the evidence in the article, and reaffirming their belief that the universe started with one and only one big bang. Their evidence is that the universe is not only expanding, but is expanding at an ever increasing rate, and either already has or soon will reach a “point of no return” where it can only continue to expand, and never will contract. Too much dark energy pushing the matter in the universe apart. It’ll go on forever.
Two competing theories. I emphasize that the Scientific American article did not state that the authors thought the Big Bang theory was wrong, just that they thought it did not explain everything, and a rebounding universe was a possibility. Okay, so much for that.
My interest in this discussion between the “Uni”-verse theory and the “Multi”-verse theory isn’t to try and distinguish between them, or even try to add my name to one or the other. I’m not a physicist and haven’t got the faintest idea which is correct. I’ll let those more competent than I figure that out. But as I began to think about the concept of a rebounding universe, my thoughts took a philosophical turn, and I began to wonder where we all fit in such a scenario. The universe expands from a point source and grows larger and larger, to eventually result in our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, our cities and towns, and us. It goes on for billions of more years, and reaches a tipping point. It begins to contract and drops back to a point, and the cycle starts all over again. All of that is conceivable by the human mind. But what isn’t conceivable is the idea that this has been going on forever, and will go on into infinity. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog called “Wrap Your Mind Around This…” in which I pointed out a few examples of things that are so out of the ordinary in today’s world that they were impossible for the human mind to comprehend. This rebounding universe is another. (See the earlier blog at https://rogerfloyd.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/wrap-your-mind-around-this/) Although I can see a universe that starts with an inflation and continues on only to dissipate into infinity, I can’t begin to envision a universe that bounds and rebounds, like a tennis ball that will not stop bouncing. Such a universe violates the laws of physics. The most difficult part to envision is that there has never been a beginning, and there will never be an end. How does something never have a beginning?
I wonder, does the universe play the same thing over and over with each rebound? Did we exist in all those past universes? Or, is each universe different?
The universe in which we currently exist is so large, we are almost infinitely tiny in comparison. Our galaxy, which is so much larger than us, is itself only one of billions, even, perhaps, trillions. But to put all that in the context of a universe that rises and falls like a bouncing ball, and has been going on forever—no beginning, no end—just makes the comparison even more difficult to understand.