Excerpt from The Universe In A Nutshell by Stephen Hawking, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Universe In A Nutshell

by Stephen Hawking

The Universe In A Nutshell
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    Nov 2001, 224 pages

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What is time? Is it an ever-rolling stream that bears all our dreams away, as the old hymn says? Or is it a railroad track? Maybe it has loops and branches, so you can keep going forward and yet return to an earlier station on the line.

The nineteenth-century author Charles Lamb wrote: "Nothing puzzles me like time and space. And yet nothing troubles me less than time and space, because I never think of them." Most of us don't worry about time and space most of the time, whatever that may be; but we all do wonder sometimes what time is, how it began, and where it is leading us.

Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved to be correct.

On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory. (At least, that is what is supposed to happen. In practice, people often question the accuracy of the observations and the reliability and moral character of those making the observations.) If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.

Isaac Newton gave us the first mathematical model for time and space in his PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA, published in 1687. Newton occupied the Lucasian chair at Cambridge that I now hold, though it wasn't electrically operated in his time. In Newton's model, time and space were a background in which events took place but which weren't affected by them. Time was separate from space and was considered to be a single line, or railroad track, that was infinite in both directions. Time itself was considered eternal, in the sense that it had existed, and would exist, forever.

By contrast, most people thought the physical universe had been created more or less in its present state only a few thousand years ago. This worried philosophers such as the German thinker Immanuel Kant. If the universe had indeed been created, why had there been an infinite wait before the creation? On the other hand, if the universe had existed forever, why hadn't everything that was going to happen already happened, meaning that history was over? In particular, why hadn't the universe reached thermal equilibrium, with everything at the same temperature?

Kant called this problem an "antimony of pure reason," because it seemed to be a logical contradiction; it didn't have a resolution. But it was a contradiction only within the context of the Newtonian mathematical model, in which time was an infinite line, independent of what was happening in the universe. However, as we saw in Chapter 1, in 1915 a completely new mathematical model was put forward by Einstein: the general theory of relativity. In the years since Einstein's paper, we have added a few ribbons and bows, but our model of time and space is still based on what Einstein proposed. This and the following chapters will describe how our ideas have developed in the years since Einstein's revolutionary paper. It has been a success story of the work of a large number of people, and I'm proud to have made a small contribution.

Excerpted from The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking Copyright 2001 by Stephen Hawking. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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