Science Seen Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand the physics of your world.

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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 .’

pope-stephen-hawkingHe 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).

Hawking quote re universeThe 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.

And if (as observations show) the same laws of physics exist everywhere, the universe cannot be surrounded by nothingness—a notion Einstein shot down back in 1917.

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.

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  1. Sujay Bhattacharya July 31, 2017 at 11:40 am #

    Ancient Indian philosophy says same what Stephen Hawking said. That’s when GOD (if you believe) is attribute less there was NOTHING, just ZERO. One day GOD desired to CREATE & took physical attribute. Then HE started creating atoms, molecules, rocks, stars, planets, galaxies, plants, animals (we humans are also there … most difficult animals).
    How it’s possible to create SO MUCH OF MASS FROM JUST NOTHING ? There had to be at least SOME HIDDEN ENORMOUS ENERGY. Where it is stored ? IS THAT ETERNAL ENERGY IS GOD ? The “Big Bang” theory involves existence of particles; but where they came from ? Well, it’s hard to explain by Physics & Chemistry. But no scientist have come up with a satisfactory answer yet.
    Very interesting !

  2. Oliver Zuniga July 4, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    True nothingness by definition can not exist. So what exists is called “everything”. The real question is then why “everything” has the shape it has.

    M-Theory allows for “everything” to take many shapes… many universes where complexity and life can not exist, even a big enough stretch space and time can not exist in many universes, so we sentient beings can only experience reality when it takes a particular shape that allows for life to exist.

    The universe is as it is because if it wasn’t then we wouldn’t be here, but it can have any possible (and even impossible) shape, logic need not apply in other universes. So there is your answer. All we have to do now is prove that those other universes are there and that this is not the only one and really there won’t be much more to wonder about.

  3. Dario July 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm #

    True though because just using pure logic alone then nothing will lead to nothing. Nothing by definition is absolutely nothing and therefore nothing can ever happen let alone the beginning of a universe.

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