Saturday, September 25, 2010
On September 10, Larry King Live broadcasted an interview King conducted with Stephen Hawking about his recent book The Universe in a Nutshell and his comments that the origin of the universe does not need to be explained with reference to a divine creator. Tellingly, that hot topic veered quickly to the subject of time travel. Is there a connection between the quest to determine the divine/non-divine origins of the universe and time travel? (I feel like Paul in Dune - "The worms - the spice - is there a relationship?").
Hawking discussed his views on the origins of the universe in a Discovery Channel documentary, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking: The Story of Everything, which aired this past spring. On this program, he summarized much of what is now considered the conventional wisdom on cosmology. He comments that "there is no such thing as perfection." And imperfection upset the initial equilibrium of a pinprick of energy prior to the Big Bang - an upset that sparked the universe's existence.
In this view, we are all products of the Big Bang, that is, we and everything we see around us, are part of an ongoing explosion. Hawking traces exploding matter to the origins of life. Our bodies are constructed, he says, of the stuff of stars. And when we die, our atoms are recycled back into the universe: "What's true is that we are only the temporary custodians of the particles which we are made of. They will go on to lead a future existence in the enormous universe that made them." In the conclusion, Hawking anticipates the evolution of super-humanity through genetic manipulation, which will enable space exploration.
As for Hawking's dismissal of God, surely the ultimate issue here is not the literal truth of religious beliefs (although it is for many) and their relative ability to explain the origins of the universe versus that of scientific theories. Rather, religion has always played an intimate and indispensable part of human psychological development. When our gods die, we find that them reborn in new forms, suggesting that a faith in something higher drives our curious spirit and our darker instincts. Even in Hawking's projected future, humans, if they will still be called that, will be worshipping someone or something, as a mirror of their great drama; faith is one of the inescapable core narratives of our evolution as a form of life.
What was Einstein's position on God? There is a page on his views on Stephen Jay Gould's commemorative site here. Einstein wrote: “The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself amoung profoundly religious men.”
God is also an anthropomorphized personification of our understanding of life without time - as well as life after death - or life beyond death. This divine metaphor of the infinite brings even the most staunch athiests into the realm of ethics. What morality exists if we all live forever? Immortality is the longest view, the biggest picture, against which all our actions, and our lives, might be assessed for their final meaning. But the rub is that immortality is also a concept which we can never understand from conscious experience. Hence divinity, and all its associated concepts, lie beyond our reach. Time travel is the closest approximation of immortality that may actually be possible. As time travellers, we would glimpse time as a divine being would, because we could grasp time's larger scope and meaning.
In the King interview, King turned to time travel: "You have written, Stephen, that time travel was once considered scientific heresy. How likely is it that time travel will one day become a reality?"
Hawking: "Time travel used to be thought of as science fiction, but Einstein's Theory of General Relativity allows the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could fly off in a rocket and return before you set out. I was one of the first to write about the conditions under which this would be possible. Unfortunately, it is likely that the warping would destroy the spaceship, and maybe space-time itself." There are reports on Hawking's views on time travel here and here. Hawking says it would be impossible to travel back in time; we could only go forward: "a spaceship capable of travelling through time - but only forwards - would breach Albert Einstein's theories of relativity. Having taken six years to reach its full speed of 98 per cent of the speed of light (650 million miles per hour), a day on board the ship would be equivalent to a year on Earth, he said, allowing those on board to reach the edge of the galaxy in just 80 years. But the ship required for the journey would have to be massive to allow for the required fuel. He dismissed the idea of travelling backwards through time, saying doing so would violate a fundamental rule that cause comes before effect and that such an act could allow people to make themselves impossible, such as if a person travelled back in time and shot [his or her] former self."