At a conference few years ago I heard an academic (whose name I have conveniently forgotten) remark that ‘Stephen Hawking isn’t the best cosmologist in the world. He isn’t even the best cosmologist in Cambridge.’ It was, I suppose, a jealous remark, and since I’m not a cosmologist I am not even remotely qualified to judge on its accuracy. It does however place on the table the fact that at the highest levels of science there are many razor-sharp minds and the general public only hear of a very few of them. Certainly one of the few they have heard of is Hawking. His combination of intellectual brilliance, dogged determination in the face of severe illness, and ability to write a number of hugely successful popular science books, made him a scientific celebrity.
At one level Hutchings & Wilkinson’s book on Hawking is quite simply an extremely good piece of popular science writing. They cover the major topics within physics; quantum mechanics, particle physics, general relativity and cosmology. This is all well pitched for a popular audience, and gives good scaffolding to enable Hawking’s ‘big ideas’ in cosmology to be explained. Each chapter is introduced with a story which nicely ‘hooks’ the reader into the topic to be covered and engagingly weaves narrative and science together.
The authors take Hawking’s major contributions to be the existence of (yet to be detected) Hawking Radiation from black holes; the idea that the universe began with a singularity (or infinity) in space-time; and the Hartle-Hawking model which uses the idea of imaginary time in the very early universe. All three of these highly technical ideas are described in clear, nontechnical language.
However, Hutchings and Wilkinson give us much more that great popular science. When we discuss fundamental physics, philosophy, and occasionally theology, are not far away, and Hawking was not shy of commenting on them. The authors take Hawking’s forays into these areas ‘head-on’ and point out that it is when Hawking moves onto this ground he was outside he own area of expertise and at his weakest.
Hawkings comment that ‘philosophy is dead’ (in The Grand Design, co-authored with Mlodinow deserves about as much respect as Albert Camus saying ‘physics is dead’. (Though it has to be said that Hutchings and Wilkinson are much too polite to put it that directly.) His idea of an ultimately superfluous deity who, at most, did no more than light the blue touch paper of the universe, is rightly met with a shrug by theists, who don’t believe in a deity like that anyway. The authors point out, graciously, but firmly, that while Hawking was a brilliant physicist, when he stepped into matters of philosophy he was an amateur.
And then there is the multiverse. This is the idea (which does not originate with Hawking) that certain aspects of modern physics lend themselves to there being an infinite number of universes. Within this infinity of universes all things that can happen do happen. Thus there are universes with all possible variants of ourselves; universes where all the PG Wodehouse stories are not fiction but fact; and universes which cover all the possible laws of physics.
The authors note that the multiverse is both highly speculative and (more importantly) is arguably not even a scientific theory, since in principle none of the infinite number of alternative universes are open to any type of scientific interrogation by us. The multiverse is (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) the most ridiculous speculation to have come out of modern physics. I say this despite the fact that I really am a big fan of Wodehouse, and the idea that there is a universe where Bertie Wooster does indeed exist rather appeals to me.
However, in a very clever ending to the book the authors point out that Hawking and the Christian do indeed live in different universes. In one there are the laws of physics, and, amongst other things, further statements about the nature of God, the miracles of Jesus, his resurrection etc. In the other there are the laws of physics, and the negation of statements about Christianity. In this sense, claim Hutchings and Wilkinson, the Christian and the atheist ‘are not seeking to explain the same universe’ (p.183). It is a well placed observation. There is more to the universe than science, or to put in another way, the universe is too rich a place to be adequately explained by science alone.
To conclude, this is a book which works very well at more than one level. It is very good popular science, and a very good introduction to Hawking’s ‘big ideas’. But it is also takes apart some of the hype and unjustified bravado around suggestions that modern cosmology has everything ‘sewn-up’ and has disposed with a Creator.
A very good read!
David Hutchings is a Physics teacher at Pocklington School near York, England. A Fellow of the Institute of Physics, he has written several books about the relationship between science and religion and speaks regularly on the topic around the country at conferences, schools, universities, and churches. David has also run multiple training events for science teachers, specializing in dealing with common misconceptions in the discipline. He lives in York with his wife and two young daughters.
David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College and Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. He lives in Newcastle with his wife Alison and has two grown up children. He is a writer and speaker on Christianity and Science not just in the UK but around the world. He has doctorates in astrophysics and theology and is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is a Methodist minister, and author of many books.
Mark McCartney is senior lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Ulster
God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse: What Hawking said and why it matters by David Hutchings & David Wilkinson is available here.
Published by SPCK, 2020, 210 pages. £9.92 (Paperback)