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 by Stephen Hawking
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    Nov 2001, 224 pages

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Before the era during which the universe has been expanding, there must have been a previous contracting phase during which matter fell together but missed colliding with itself, moving apart again in the present expanding phase. If this were the case, time would continue on forever, from the infinite past to the infinite future.

Not everyone was convinced by the arguments of Lifshitz and Khalatnikov. Instead, Roger Penrose and I adopted a different approach, based not on a detailed study of solutions but on the global structure of spacetime. In general relativity, spacetime is curved not only by massive objects in it but also by the energy in it. Energy is always positive, so it gives spacetime a curvature that bends the paths of light rays toward each other.

Now consider our past light cone, that is, the paths through spacetime of the light rays from distant galaxies that reach us at the present time. In a diagram with time plotted upward and space plotted sideways, this is a cone with its vertex, or point, at us.

As we go toward the past, down the cone from the vertex, we see galaxies at earlier and earlier times. Because the universe has been expanding and everything used to be much closer together, as we look back further we are looking back through regions of higher matter density. We observe a faint background of microwave radiation that propagates to us along our past light cone from a much earlier time, when the universe was much denser and hotter than it is now. By tuning receivers to different frequencies of microwaves, we can measure the spectrum (the distribution of power arranged by frequency) of this radiation. We find a spectrum that is characteristic of radiation from a body at a temperature of 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. This microwave radiation is not much good for defrosting frozen pizza, but the fact that the spectrum agrees so exactly with that of radiation from a body at 2.7 degrees tells us that the radiation must have come from regions that are opaque to microwaves.

Thus we can conclude that our past light cone must pass through a certain amount of matter as one follows it back. This amount of matter is enough to curve spacetime, so the light rays in our past light cone are bent back toward each other.

As one goes back in time, the cross sections of our past light cone reach a maximum size and begin to get smaller again. Our past is pear-shaped.

As one follows our past light cone back still further, the positive energy density of matter causes the light rays to bend toward each other more strongly. The cross section of the light cone will shrink to zero size in a finite time. This means that all the matter inside our past light cone is trapped in a region whose boundary shrinks to zero. It is therefore not very surprising that Penrose and I could prove that in the mathematical model of general relativity, time must have a beginning in what is called the big bang. Similar arguments show that time would have an end, when stars or galaxies collapse under their own gravity to form black holes. We had sidestepped Kant's antimony of pure reason by dropping his implicit assumption that time had a meaning independent of the universe. Our paper, proving time had a beginning, won the second prize in the competition sponsored by the Gravity Research Foundation in 1968, and Roger and I shared the princely sum of $300. I don't think the other prize essays that year have shown much enduring value.

There were various reactions to our work. It upset many physicists, but it delighted those religious leaders who believed in an act of creation, for here was scientific proof. Meanwhile, Lifshitz and Khalatnikov were in an awkward position. They couldn't argue with the mathematical theorems that we had proved, but under the Soviet system they couldn't admit they had been wrong and Western science had been right. However, they saved the situation by finding a more general family of solutions with a singularity, which weren't special in the way their previous solutions had been. This enabled them to claim singularities, and the beginning or end of time, as a Soviet discovery.

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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