Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reading Stephen Hawking (Cause I'm Totally Smart Like That)

About two weeks ago, released a list title "100 Books to Read in a Lifetime".  A close friend of mine (we've been friends for about ten years now) sent me the list with a proposed challenge: let's see who can read all 100 books first.  Seemed easy enough, I mean, it's only 100 books.  We agreed on a few simple rules to keep everything fair.
  1. Any books we've already read we have to reread (that's 18 books in all for me)
  2. We have to tell each other when we finish a book on the list so we can keep track of each other
  3. We only have to read the first Lord of the Rings book (on the list it's listed as The Lord of the Rings and the trilogy was supposed to be published as one gigantic book at first, but that was too much for us to do)
I love to give commentaries on books and movies and television shows (I've been known to have a commentary while watching the TV Guide scroll by), so I thought it would be a good way to get back into blogging by blogging about the books I'm reading.  Some books I might not really have a lot to say about, but others I know I'll have lots to say.  We'll see how it goes.

I started off by identifying what books I already owned (quite a few).  I knocked a few short ones out of the way (I read The Great Gatsby and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone over a long weekend and found a copy of Goodnight Moon to get out of the way also).  My first really challenging book was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I never took physics in high school or college, and for a very good reason.  I am horrible at math, and my science skills are just a tiny bit better.  Even so, I felt like reading this book would make me a little smarter about the world around me.  And, if all else fails, we did agree on reading the books, we never said we had to comprehend the books.

I will say one thing about this book before I get started: I was a little worried.  I was worried that Hawking was going to completely bash religion and say how there is no possible way a higher being could possibly exist.  I was completely and utterly shocked to find out that I was wrong.  Don't get me wrong, I only understood about 5% of the book (I did feel very smart walking around with it in my hands).  My friend put it best by saying, "Of course you don't understand it, it's Hawking.  Compared to him, everyone's dumb."  It did make me feel better about everything.

I've digressed.  I'm no math or science person.  I can tell you that I understood only about 5% of that book.  That 5%, however, I found to be very interesting.

First, I was surprised at Hawking’s ability to connect physics to religion.  I really thought that he would use this book to completely destroy religion and disprove any notion of a higher being.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Hawking implies that we should not attempt to understand some mysteries of the universe.  In fact he closes his book by saying, “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.  If we find the answer to that…then we would know the mind of God.”  Hawking also acknowledges that God may have created some of the laws of the universe and stepped back, allowing things to on a life of their own, which is why we don’t understand everything going on in the world around us.

Mixed in amongst the highly technical analyses of black holes, string theory and the like, Hawkings made sure to incorporate humor into his book.  It wasn’t very often, but it was sprinkled in there occasionally.  In one instance, Hawking talks about a long-running bet he has with a colleague about the existence of black holes.  Should Hawking win, he would get a four year subscription of a magazine (courtesy of his colleague), should his colleague win, he’ll get a year subscription of a different magazine (courtesy of Hawking).  Hawking also told a story about an article published in 1948 by a man named George Gamow and his student, Ralph Alpher.  Gamow convinced a colleague named Hans Bethe to add his name to the paper so the authors’ names would read Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, similar to the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha, Beta, Gamma.  The humor in the book was minimal, as it is meant to be a serious book, but what humor that was there was very amusing.

Like I’ve said a million times throughout this post, I actually understood very little of the book.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t understand any of it though.  There were some excellent points made.  First, Hawking pointed out that if the universe goes on infinitely in every direction, then every single point in the universe can be considered the center of the universe.  I tried that line on my mom, telling her that technically the universe does revolve around me…she didn’t buy it.

One thing Hawking also elaborated on was the size of the universe.  This is something that I’ve thought about a little bit in the past.  In the grand scheme of things, you and I and everything else around you isn’t even a microscopic speck compared to the universe.  As Hawking points out, “We now know that our galaxy is only one of some hundred thousand million that can be seen using modern telescopes, each galaxy itself containing some hundred thousand million stars.”  I’m not going to go into an “aliens are real” rant, because I really don’t know what I believe about that.  what I am going to do is point out that there is just so much out there, how can we be 100% certain that we are in fact alone in this massive universe?  Like I said, I’m not going to get into if aliens are real or not, because I don’t have a strong enough opinion either way to make an argument.

Overall, I’m sure I would have enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s book a lot more if I had some sort of understanding for physics.  Unfortunately, I don’t.  My only understanding of physics comes from the very basics taught to me in 9th grade science.  Unfortunately, that was about 8½ years ago, so it’s been a while.  I do believe that Hawking does a fairly good job of explaining theoretical physics, I was just not the intended audience for the book.  If you do understand theoretical physics or aren’t completely clueless about stuff like that like I am, then the book would definitely be worth your time.

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