Magazine article The Christian Century

Grand Theory

Magazine article The Christian Century

Grand Theory

Article excerpt

Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind

By Kitty Ferguson

Palgrave Macmillan, 320 pp., $27.00


Throughout most of his career, physicist Stephen Hawking has strived for a theory of everything--a complete, integrated understanding of what makes the universe work, from the smallest of subatomic particles to the incomprehensibly massive expanse of the galaxies. In the first edition of his best-selling book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, he declared that to achieve the discovery of this theory would be to "know the mind of God."

Hawking's own mind with respect to God is tightly intertwined with the history of the search for the grand theory. He has declared himself neither theist nor atheist. He prefers to refer to "God as the embodiment of the laws of physics."

As Kitty Ferguson points out in her biography of Hawking, it's difficult to know Hawking's most intimate thoughts on the matter because amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known as Lou Gehrig's disease in the United States and as motor neuron disease in Hawking's native England, long ago left him unable to move or speak. He communicates laboriously through a computer that he controls with the twitch of a cheek muscle. Nevertheless, Ferguson's thorough, objective and insightful account provides us with a good sense of Hawking's thoughts on God. Launched in the same month as Hawking's 70th birthday, the book also takes stock of the quest for the theory of everything and the limitations Hawking and others have faced in that search.

Hawking has not abandoned the quest, but he now seems far less optimistic that science can find the ultimate model of how things work. In Hawking's words, our theories are necessarily inconsistent or incomplete because "we and our models are both part of the universe we are describing.... Physical theories are self-referential."

With the theory of everything, Hawking had hoped to explain uniformly how the miniature (quantum mechanics) is governed by the same principles and forces as the large (gravity and the celestial bodies). Now, however, many physicists and cosmologists have settled, at least for now, on what they call M-theory. Ferguson, herself a scientist, provides a sober assessment of it:

   M-theory is not simple. You can't
   print it on a T-shirt. It doesn't fulfill
   the promise of Wheeler's poetic
   words. It doesn't measure up to the
   Pythagorean standard, where beautiful
   clarity is a guide to truth. Does
   that mean it might be wrong?
   Hawking's attitude towards it is not
   that it is right, or ultimate, but that it
   is the best we are ever going to do. M-theory
   is not a single theory. It is a collection
   of theories.... We don't yet
   know how to formulate that deeper
   theory as a single set of equations and
   arguably never will.

So that brings all of us, including Hawking, back to the question of the Creator. As Ferguson correctly points out, both extremes in the God-versus-atheism debate have used Hawking for their own purposes. "He's been the hero and villain of both camps," she writes. He clearly does not believe in the personal God of historical religions, who intervenes in people's lives; rather, he has preferred a complex, intellectualized approach to the question of the Supreme Being. …

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