Science Seen Physicist and Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand your world.
Stephen Hawking’s recipe for the universe may be good religion but it’s bad physics
Stephen Hawking says he has a deep belief. He calls it nothing. He says this is good physics. I say it it is not. He says it is real. I say it is only an idea.
Explaining his own curiosity he says, ‘I wanted to understand how the universe began.’ Many physicists see this as a religious question and avoid it like the plague.
By contrast Hawking speaks up for studying the initial conditions of the infant universe: that is, the very beginning that led to the Big Bang. He says: ‘Cosmology cannot predict anything about the universe unless it makes some assumption about the initial conditions .’
He says too: ‘There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason.’ Of course we have no observation of the initial instant, so we observe as far back as we can and use reason to reach further if it will.
Hawking’s physics often breaks new ground. But all the more reason to check carefully the ground he walks on.
In his ambitious book The Grand Design, Hawking breezily declares success: God’s not needed to create our cozy universe, he says; the universe began with nothing and the laws of physics did the deed for us. How so?
Up close and dirty his universal recipe seems half baked. As cosmic chefs let’s first assemble the ingredients. Hawking’s recipe requires:
1 nothing (perhaps infinitesimal; or maybe infinite – the recipe’s unclear)
1 sprig of time, about to begin
1 set of laws of physics (including those known as M-theory)
Directions: At zero time mix laws of physics into nothing. Stir as space emerges, making sure to leave small lumps. Check 45 parameters against those of the Standard Model. If one turns out to be not quite right, discard all nothing and begin again (no sweat; M-theory will do this for you too).
The connect with observation is at best obscure. The disconnect with reason is quite obvious. The biggest problem with this universal recipe is its nothing.
As Larry King asked Hawking’s coauthor Leonard Mlodinow: Where does the nothing come from? Neither The Grand Design nor its authors offer King a cogent answer.
Nothing seems an easy thing to toss around. But it is not a thing. Thus it is hard for its tossees to keep its tossers honest. Hats off to King whose deadpan questions (now removed from YouTube but the transcript is here) took surgical shots at it.
Readers of Time One will recall the inescapable conclusion that there is no nothing in the universe. None! Not even nowhere. The vacuum is physics fiction. The entire universe is made of something. Call it a fleck, a quantum of space, the cosmological constant, Dark Energy or the Calabi-Yau manifold that is the basis for string theories, it is all the same thing. It is every Planck volume of the cosmos.
This brings us back to Stephen Hawking. His initial condition for the universe rests on the less than firm foundation of his unquestioning belief in the reality of nothing. It is as religious as belief in God.
So a big thank-you to Stephen Hawking: even when they’re bad, ideas tend to teach us something. In this case we see that starting off the universe with nothing is based on neither observation nor reason. They both point to a far simpler beginning—one that solves many problems.