Happy Birthday, Professor Hawking
I began this column after watching the December 30 Sunday
Morning program with Charles Osgood. At this time of year the
program always has a feature on those who died that year. In
2001, those featured included some of my favorites in the
entertainment field such as Carroll O''Connor, Jack Lemon,
Imogene Cocoa and Perry Como. Two giants in the scientific
arena were neglected by Sunday Morning. We discussed their
contributions in these columns last year. They were Claude
Shannon and Sir Fred Hoyle. Claude Shannon published a
revolutionary paper in 1948 that laid out a full-blown theory of
information as being encoded in bits and bytes. The paper
appeared just before Bell Labs, Shannon''s employer, was to
announce the invention of the transistor to the public. These two
Bell Labs discoveries led to the computer era of today.
Fred Hoyle, ironically, is remembered by many for coining the
term "Big Bang". Actually, he didn''t believe in the Big Bang
theory to his death and meant the term as a derogatory statement.
His major contribution was a seminal theory that explained how
hydrogen and helium stoked the nuclear furnaces inside the stars
to form the heavier elements. That theory showed how all that
carbon and the other elements that make us up formed in stars
and later were spewed out into the cosmos as the stars blew up.
The dust containing these elements then formed other stars like
our sun, planets like our earth and life like us humans.
I''m not sure why I look forward to this Sunday Morning feature
every year at this time. Is it that, a few days after my birthday
(number 74), I feel lucky that I''m one who has survived another
year? Unlike Fred Hoyle, another stellar explorer of our universe
did not pass away last year. Indeed, the filing date for this
column, January 8, is the 60th birthday of Stephen Hawking. For
my birthday, Brian Trumbore gave me a copy of Hawking''s
latest book "The Universe in a Nutshell". Brian may have had an
ulterior motive. I suspect he knew that I wouldn''t be able to read
the book without writing about it. If so, he was correct.
Before considering the book, let''s look at the history of its
remarkable author, much of which I''ve gleaned from Hawking''s
own Web site www.hawking.org.uk. Hawking was in his third
year at Oxford when, always somewhat clumsy, he began to be
even more so and fell a couple times without any obvious reason.
So, at the age of 21, he found he had ALS, Lou Gehrig''s disease.
Amazingly, he didn''t die as he expected. He even married, had
three children and entered Cambridge University to do research
on cosmology. When he went to Cambridge he had hoped to
work with the aforementioned Fred Hoyle but it didn''t work out.
(In fact, Hawking''s later work with a fellow named Roger
Penrose was to show that Einstein''s General Theory of Relativity
implied the existence of Hoyle''s despised Big Bang.)
Until 1974, Hawking was able to feed himself and get in and out
of bed but his condition continued to worsen. His devoted wife
had managed to care for him and their children without outside
help. After 1974, care was provided by live-in students and then
by community and private nurses. In 1985, after a bout of
pneumonia and a tracheostomy operation, he lost his ability to
speak. It was then that he began to become the beneficiary of
Claude Shannon''s legacy of bits and bytes and the latest in
computer technology. Today, he has a computer and a universal
remote control built into his wheelchair. He can open doors and
turn on the lights or his radio or TV etc. Using advanced
software and a speech synthesizer, he can communicate, write
books and even deliver lectures. He does the latter by storing his
lecture on diskettes and then "delivering" the lecture by feeding
the diskette contents to his synthesizer. You may have seen him
on TV or even in a scene in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in
which he plays poker with Newton, Einstein and Captain Data!
In 1988, having already spent 20 years in a wheelchair, he
published his best seller "A Brief History of Time".
His latest book about the universe in a nutshell is beautifully
illustrated with colorful cartoons and drawings that help make
very complex topics seem somewhat understandable. Hawking,
especially considering his disability, writes with style and humor.
For example, he is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at
Cambridge University. In the book, Hawking mentions that
Isaac Newton also occupied the Lucasian chair at Cambridge but
that the chair wasn''t electrically operated in Newton''s time.
I was hooked immediately upon opening the book to the first
chapter with its little cartoon and full page photograph of
Einstein. Regular readers will know I''m a sucker for anything
about Einstein, my scientific hero. On the first page of this
chapter I learned something about building construction at
Harvard University. In the late 19th century, scientists thought
they were pretty smart and knew almost everything there was to
know about the universe. The prevailing opinion was that space
was filled with stuff known as the "ether". This ether was not the
stuff that was used to put patients to sleep in the operating room.
Light and radio transmissions were thought to be carried through
the ether as waves. After all, sound is transmitted through the air
One thing was missing - nobody had measured any properties of
this ether. At that time, Harvard was building its Jefferson
Laboratory. In order to measure very precisely the magnetic
properties of the ether, they built the building without any iron
nails, thinking that iron, being magnetic, would louse up their
measurements. Hawking points out that the bricks in the
building contained lots of iron and that Harvard isn''t sure even
today how much weight the floor without nails will support. So,
you Harvard guys and gals, tread lightly!
As the 19th century drew to a close, troubling findings appeared.
If light traveled at a constant speed through this ether, the speed
of light should look different to you if you were traveling in the
same direction as the light compared to traveling in the opposite
direction. However, there''s a famous experiment by a couple
guys, the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, which muddied
the waters. They conjured up a rig that allowed them to test this
idea and found that the speed of light was the same no matter
what your direction or speed.
I''ve said several times that good theoreticians can explain
anything. The Dutch and an Irish physicists Lorentz and
Fitzgerald suggested that anyone moving through the ether
would contract and their clock would slow down. With the
slower clocks, everyone would measure the same speed of light.
They just didn''t want to give up that ether.
In 1905, Einstein burst upon the scene, saying in effect, "Hey,
who needs the ether?" Assume that the speed of light is the
same for everyone, everywhere, no matter how fast they are
moving or in what direction. This may not sound all that radical
an idea except that if you accept the idea, you also have to give
up a long cherished belief. This is the belief that there is a sort
of "universal" time. Now Einstein concludes time is relative and
everyone has his or her own personal time.
Since Einstein proposed this radical new idea, it has been
confirmed many times. Hawking cites an experiment in which
one airplane flies east and another flies west around the world.
At the end of the trip, the two super precise clocks on board the
planes show different times. Hawking''s humor shows again in
his comment that if you want to live longer by a tiny fraction of a
second you should get on a plane and just keep flying east in the
direction of the earth''s rotation. However, Hawking notes that
the fraction of a second you might gain would be "more than
canceled by eating airline food"!
Even today, Hawking says he gets letters weekly that maintain
Einstein was wrong. Yet, one of the equations that followed
directly from the assumption of a constant speed of light is
known to everyone: Energy = mass times the speed of light
squared. Nobody can argue with that - the atom and hydrogen
bombs and nuclear power are too powerful a confirmation of his
theory. We''ve noted before that, amazingly, Einstein''s Nobel
Prize was for a completely different piece of work that any
ordinary genius could have come up with. Not a word in the
Nobel award about the theory that will stand as one of man''s
greatest achievements as long as humans live on this earth.
I''m now far enough along in Hawking''s book that things are
beginning to get rough. The cartoons are great but no matter
how you simplify, treating a black hole as a multidimensional
membrane is pretty far out to me. When I think I can halfway
understand how a black hole can evaporate to nothing I may try
writing about that too. In the meantime, my next column will be
While writing this column, I took down my copy of Hawking''s
"A Brief History of Time" to check its publication date and
found in it a stickum note I had left in the front of the book. I
had lent the book to Tom and Naomi, friends of ours. Naomi
was not well and was soon to pass away. The note from Tom,
dated 1993, said "Great book - read it aloud to Naomi and found
it so well written for lay people that we could almost understand
it! We even bought a copy for ourselves." One could do worse
than spend his or her last days trying to understand the work of
one of the most courageous and brilliant scientists of our time.
Happy birthday, Professor Hawking!
Allen F. Bortrum