Peter Hawking: “A Brief History of Time”

In order to truly understand Steven Hawking and all his crazy theories and pure genius that makes anyone who tries or has tried to figure out what he is talking about, feel like someone who hasn’t passed 1st grade. First a brief biography on his life and then I will, with the help of Mr. Hawking himself (actually his online website), try to explain some of his mind-boggling theories in my own words. There are two indisputable facts about Stephen Hawking. One: The British theoretical physicist is a wizard of applied mathematics and a titan of astronomy.

Hawking peers light-years away into space without a telescope and conquers uncharted mathematical terrain without a computer. Two: He has been paralyzed with Lou Gehrig’s disease for 30 years. In 56-year-old Hawking’s case, this means that although he feels no pain, virtually every muscle (save those around his eyes) is useless. Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford, England, in 1942. After the London blitz of World War II, his family moved to the suburbs, where Stephen and his three younger siblings grew up.

The Hawkings’ was a somber household in which the entire family often spent evenings quietly reading His father, a physician, researched tropical diseases and took an active role in getting his gifted son admitted to England’s best schools. In his younger years Stephen’s mind was mature. At a time when only a handful of computers existed in all of Britain, and most of those were in the military, Hawking and a group of high school friends built one from scratch using old phone switches and relays. It could solve logical problems and was written up in the local newspaper.

Hawking attended Oxford University, where he studied for maybe hour a day. He spent the rest of his time drinking and socializing. Such behavior had less to do with a lack of diligence than with boredom. He found his homework so easy that he never broke a sweat, even in advanced courses. While fellow students toiled for a week on one take-home test with 13 questions, solving perhaps a problem and a half, Hawking procrastinated. Then, on the day the test was due, he began to work. Finishing the test in a few hours. Then, early in his 20s, came the first signs of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Hawking began spilling drinks. Falling down. One day while skating with his family, he collapsed and could not get up. Tests confirmed the worst. Apparently, he had contracted the disease at an earlier age, but the symptoms had not appeared until that point. Hawking knew the ailment might quickly prove fatal; half of all those diagnosed with ALS die within three years of its onset. Knowing the odds were against him Hawking fell deeper into drinking and depression and spent hours listening to the doom-filled operas of Richard Wagner, according to some accounts.

Hawking came out of his depression after meeting future wife Jane Wilde and finished what he calls the best work of his life, finishing school at Cambridge University. As his medical expenses began to pile on, Hawking had to use the money of wealthy philanthropists to cover his children’s tuition expenses. He also published frequent articles in scholarly journals, though these were of little help financially, as they offered more prestige than payment. Simon Mitton, Hawking’s editor at Cambridge University Press, had long encouraged him to write a book to help ordinary people.

This book would become a best seller. A Brief History of Time. I will be explaining this book further in this documentation. Unfortunately, Cambridge University Press could offer only pocket change for the book when Hawking finally conceded to write it. Fortunately, there was soon a serious American offer on the table: $250,000. Both a book agent and an editor at Bantam had read of Hawking in a Sunday newspaper. Although they knew little about physics, the marketing people sensed that the scientist’s struggle to overcome his disability would put interest in the book.

A Brief History of Time reached the best-seller list in 1988 and stayed there for a publishing eternity, more than two years. It has sold at least eight million copies and made its author a rich man, bringing him at least $6 million. This book was one of the first where the author’s handicaps overshadowed the books enlightening text. No one really read Hawking’s masterpiece cover to cover, unless they were REALLY bored and had the mental skills to actually know what in the world he was saying. The one supposedly for “ordinary folk” is hardly accessible to the average reader pondering his or her place in space and time.

Consider one sentence: “However, in 1964 two more Americans, J. W. Cronin and Val Fitch, discovered that even the CP symmetry was not obeyed in the decay of certain particles called K-mesons. ” Hawking not only mixes and matches different scientific fields, but jumps back and forth between centuries. In one breath, he moves from 1800 to 1970; in the next, he leaps from Aristotle to Cal Tech. In fact, some critics have gone so far as to suggest that the book was more likely to confuse readers than to clarify scientific matters for them.

This book was definitely one-of-a-kind, and so is it’s author, who with charm and humor, the once obscure professor became a media darling, and got to meet the queen of England, Steven Spielberg, and Shirley MacLaine. He made the covers of magazines, starred in documentaries about his books, and even appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hawking became a star not only because of his book sales, but because the public responded to his wit and felt compassion for his plight. It is amazing that Lou Gehrig’s disease has not impeded Hawking’s brilliant career.

As a theoretician, he is not expected to spend decades hunched over a radio telescope gathering data. Instead, he ponders complex ideas and deciphers brain-numbing equations in his head, searching for new explanations, new connections. Hawking’s mind has grown mighty with time, tirelessly producing equations and theories that inspire and challenge researchers all over the world. Hawking himself has said that lacking a functional body has forced him to use his brain more and made his thinking more original.

Perhaps the most famous of Hawking’s ideas relates to black holes and their potential role in the birth of the universe. First found by the French mathematician Pierre LaPlace in the 1700s, black holes are actually not holes at all. They don’t have an opening at the top and a solid bottom, nor are they like a tear in a cloth. Black holes engulf everything around them, and unlike stars, planets, and comets, they are invisible to the naked eye. Still, in contrast to the theories spawned by his idols, Einstein, Galileo, and Newton, Hawking’s ideas about black holes have not been substantiated.

So to consider Hawking their historical equal is premature. He is not likely to win a Nobel Prize, and a collective scientific assessment of him will not emerge for decades, until colleagues have attempted to prove his theories. However, there is no question that Stephen Hawking has shaped the nature of scientific debate throughout the world. Now to explain the mystifying (very so to me) theories of Steven Hawking Every type of particle in the universe has a corresponding anti-particle that has the opposite charge.

The anti-particle of the negatively charged electron has a positive charge and is called the positron, while the anti-particles of the proton and neutron are the anti-proton and anti-neutron, respectively. The anti-proton has a negative charge (opposite the proton’s positive charge), and the anti-neutron is neutral, since the opposite charge of a neutral particle (no charge) is also neutral. The early universe had nearly equal amounts of matter and antimatter, with a light excess of matter—about one extra particle for every 100 million pairs of anti-matter.

Because matter and antimatter blow up one another in a burst of electromagnetic radiation (energy in the form of particles called photons, visible light is a kind of electromagnetic radiation) the universe we see today is dominated by the extra matter that couldn’t find antimatter with which to blow each other up. Apparently leaving us with all the leftovers from a ton of explosions that shaped the universe. The explosive beginning of our universe, the Big Bang marks the earliest time we can find with current physical theory.

Theory is supposed to guide our understanding of the first fraction of a second, since we can’t recreate the extremely high temperatures that existed during the earliest history of the universe in any laboratory. What this theory tells us is that from the initial state in which matter and radiation are both in an extremely hot and dense form, the universe expands and the matter cools. At that time, it is believed that all the forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—were unified. The evolution of the earliest universe is not understood very well because it is not clear exactly what laws were at work.

However, it is known that by the end of the first second of time, the building blocks of matter had formed. By the end of the first three minutes, helium and other light nuclei had formed but for a long time, temperatures remained too high for the formation of most atoms. At around one million years following the Big Bang, nuclei and electrons were at low enough temperatures to bond to form atoms. But the universe didn’t start to look like it does today until small differences in the matter distribution were able to condense to form the stars and galaxies we know today.

The destiny of our expanding universe depends on how much matter it contains and whether that will be enough to one day stop the expansion from the Big Bang. When astronomers actually count up all the visible matter—the stuff that gives off light—the answer is clearly no (or so they say), but scientists have apparently learned over the past several decades that the answer isn’t so cut-and-dried. Observations reveal that vast halos of invisible matter surround galaxies and galaxy clusters. This dark matter adds up to about ten times more mass than the visible stars, gas, and dust seen in galaxies.

And there may be more. The “inflationary theory”, if true, demands that this dark stuff makes up between 90 and 99 percent of the universe. Astronomers have yet to determine what constitutes this dark matter, although some leading candidates go by the names MACHOs, WIMPs, and neutrinos. Short for MAssive Compact Halo Objects, MACHOs could exist in huge numbers in vast halos surrounding galaxies. In the past few years, astronomers have actually detected several examples of MACHO-like objects in our galaxy, though not yet enough to account for all the dark matter known to reside there.

Brown dwarfs, with a size between normal stars and planets, could be one type of MACHO. These objects form like stars but don’t have enough mass to begin the nuclear fusion reactions that cause stars to shine brightly. Other could be MACHOs include planets, about a dozen of which have been discovered outside our own solar system in the past couple of years, and the halo objects that have recently been detected as they magnify and distort the light from stars in nearby galaxies, which, by the way, is how they find out these “dark -matters” exist.

They see the light from other planets distorted by something invisible, thus finding this “dark-matter”. Short for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, the WIMPs are predicted by theory but have so far not been found. With weird names like photino and masses of perhaps 10 to 100 times that of the proton, WIMPs could account for lots of dark matter if, as some theories are supposed to predict, they are common in the universe. The apparent “wild-card” in the debate over dark matter, the neutrino has one great advantage: Astronomers know they exist by the truckload.

Supposedly one billion neutrinos exist in the universe for every proton or electron, so they could add a huge amount of mass to the dark matter total. But the neutrino also has ahuge bust: No one knows whether they have any mass at all. When they were first found by some Austrian physicist in the 1930s to explain the energy given off by some sort of radioactive decay, neutrinos were thought to have no mass and to travel at the speed of light. Some experiments, however, seem to indicate that the neutrino has a very small mass (millions of times less than a proton) and moves at close to the speed of light.

If neutrinos have even the slightest mass, they are so numerous they could make up a significant fraction of the dark matter. One of the “key” moments in our noble scientists’ quest to comprehend the structure of matter came when they realized that not all elements are stable. The nuclei of many heavy elements, such as uranium, radium, and plutonium, are unstable, spontaneously goes all crazy and decays into other nuclei and releasing energy in the process.

This radioactivity can occur in any of three ways: alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay. In the first, an alpha particle (the nucleus of a helium atom, which consists of two protons and two neutrons) comes shooting out of the nucleus at high speed. In the second, an energetic beta particle (an electron or its antiparticle, a positron) is emitted. And in the third, which usually follows immediately after an alpha or beta decay, a high-energy gamma-ray photon radiates from the nucleus.

The amount of energy released in radioactive decay depends on the difference in mass between the original and final nucleus multiplied by the speed of light squared, as expressed by Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation. Now that I’ve delved my mind into one of genius, and certainly felt like a meager 1st grade failure with my rudimentary knowledge while doing it, I hope I have helped explain some rather complex theories by reading and rereading lots of text on Mr. Hawking and provided some information on the crippled scientists struggles to become a famous author.


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