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Stephen Hawking Lectures on Controversial Theory

By Gabor Csanyi

Harvard University’s Sanders Theater was about three quarters full on Tuesday, when the wheelchair-bound physicist rolled in from behind the stage. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, England, one of the most brilliant scientists alive, was delivering the Morris Loeb Lectures in Physics entitled “Finite but Unbounded”.

Introduced by Professor Cumrun Vafa, another eminent physicist from Harvard, Hawking started his lecture about cosmology. As he sat in the narrow beam of a spotlight, his familiar machine voice echoed from the loudspeakers. Hawking discussed updated versions of the ideas in his bestseller, A Brief History of Time, in particular, his proposal that the universe has a topological shape, which has no boundary.

Throughout the lecture, Hawking stressed the importance of the “Anthropic Principle.” Simply stated, it says that “if the conditions in the universe were not suitable for life, we would not be asking why they are as they are.”

Although the principle may seem like a tautology at first, it opens up a very interesting question. When physicists ask themselves why a certain property P of the universe is such, there are two kinds of answers. There could be an underlying theory, which explains P based on more fundamental quantities, or P could be just an accident. In particular, Hawking’s “Anthropic Principle” is the latter answer to a number of problems along the lines of , “isn’t it amazing that the values of the fundamental physical constants are just such that life is possible in the universe?”

This is a line often taken by creationists, and the “Anthropic Principle” is a very good counter. But it seems to me that the subtle relationship of this question to religion obscures the issue. It really should not be called the “Anthropic Principle” but the “Problem of the Scientific Question.” It should not be used as an ingredient of a scientific theory, but rather understood as a meta-theory, one that examines the the questions of science.

Professor Vafa gave a very nice analogy when I spoke with him after the talk. “For the Greeks, the relationships between the distances of the planets from the sun was a science. They had sophisticated theories to explain the seemingly non-random numbers. Today, we believe that to be just an accident.”

Similarly, or so Hawking claims, the dimensionality of space and amount of matter in the universe is an accident, which needs no further explanation. I think that the fact that the accident was such that life is possible is irrelevant here. The important point is whether a certain question merits scientific study or not. It further confuses the issue that Hawking insists on trying to set criteria on the physical world which would allow the existence of life.

Hawking’s arguments are naive and weak in this respect. For example, he claims that life would be impossible in a world whose spatial dimension is other than three. He says that a two dimensional dog would “fall apart along its intestine.” Who says that in a two dimensional world, there would be dogs? One can perfectly imagine two dimensional beings which don’t have intestines.

I wholeheartedly agree with Professor Vafa’s comment that “one should not have such a narrow definition of life. I believe we do not have sufficient understanding yet to claim what kind of lifeforms are possible or not.” Similarly, Hawking points out that in a higher dimensional universe, the decay of gravitational attraction would be greater than inverse square, and therefore planets would not have stable orbits. Yet who says life has to be attached to planets? Again, I think he is trying to say that the fact that four out of the eleven dimensions of current cosmological theory are extended and the others are compact is an accident.

To be fair, it must be said that he acknowledges how controversial the ‘Anthropic Principle’ is in the scientific community. Professor Sydney R. Coleman said after the talk “Anything else is better [than the ‘Anthropic Principle’ to explain something].”

It was not clear for whom the lecture was intended. There was absolutely no mathematics, which seemed to indicate that a layman should be able to comprehend the lecture. Yet physics jargon and figures with random graphs thrown in with “phi’s” and “sigma’s” flying around made it inaccessible to anyone but the practicing cosmologist.

As people started to drift out of the lecture hall midway through the talk, I wondered what they had in mind when they came. Did they come to hear the latest in quantum cosmology from one of the world’s most authoritative sources? Or did they come to see the human marvel of the man bask and in the aura of his powerful mind? Were they sorry for him? Did they pity him?

In my observation, people are drawn to human suffering, especially if the subject prevails through heroic struggle, as in the case of Hawking. Think of the countless literary works and folktales along this line. The power of these stories lies their ability to make one relive the difficulties, from the comfort of ones own mind. But Hawking’s story is hardly fiction. He is real. While you and I may shudder at the thought of his condition, this man has to live it. I implore you to consider the difference.

At the end of the lecture, while Hawking was preparing single phrase answers to a few audience questions (which takes 5-10 minutes each), his assistant entertained non-physics questions. He was asked about all sorts of details of Hawking’s personal life. I felt quite awkward. Did not anyone realize that he was right there, listening to others discussing him as some kind of peculiarity? The resemblance to a circus was uncanny. I was ashamed at the blatant celebrity mania.