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A Brief History of Time
In Search of the GUT
Will we some day unlock the keys to the universe?

Book: A Brief History of Time (First Published 1988; Illustrated, updated and expanded edition 1996; Tenth Anniversary Edition 1998; A Briefer History of Time “more accessible” abridged version with latest research, 2005)

Author: Stephen Hawking (1942-)

Connection with ABC-TV’s LOST:  The official LOST website links the book to episode 307, “Not in Portland,” where Aldo, one of the Others, is seen reading the book while guarding Karl. It is also seen in Ben’s room in episode 313, “The Man from Tallahassee.”Hawking’s themes about the nature of the universe and the possibility of time travel are important to the plot of LOST.

Review of the Book

For those who have not read A Brief History of Time, especially those with little background in physics, I recommend A Briefer History of Time. The book was condensed with the help of Leonard Mlodinow, and covers the same topics without going into some of the more complicated mathematics involved. It also makes use of the latest research. My review is based on this shorter version of the book.

Will science finally solve the mysteries of the universe by coming up with a Grand Unified Theory that will combine all the theories about the forces of nature? Hawkings is optimistic this could happen in our lifetime, but he does warn that scientists thought they were close before.

If you have no idea what a Grand Unified Theory of physics is about, you are not alone. The purpose of the book is to give the average person a basic knowledge of how our understanding of physics and the nature of the universe has changed over the years. Today, virtually no one believes in the medieval idea of an earth-centered universe. But, these concepts actually were based on measurements available at the time, and allowed medieval scientists to predict the position of the stars with amazing accuracy.

Through the years, slight anomalies were noticed that did not fit the medieval assumptions. These could only be explained by adjusting the model to put the earth and the rest of the planets in orbit around the sum. As telescopes and other modern data collecting devices have been invented, the modern picture of the earth as a minute speck in an ever-expanding universe is quite different than the cleverest scientist could ever have dreamed a few hundred years ago.

Our concept of time has also changed. Until very recently, time was thought of as a separate concept from matter, linear and always moving forward at the same rate. The scientific concept today is that space and time are inseparable–a “space-time continuum.” Time is not absolute, but relative to the observer and affected by the presence of matter itself. Will we some day learn how to use this knowledge to travel through time? At this point, using electromagnetic fields for time travel (as in LOST) or using “Red Matter” to create a Black Hole (as in the latest Star Trek movie) are Science Fiction. For the foreseeable future, we mortals are bound by the time and space in which we find ourselves.

As I was reading this volume, two things struck me. First, scientists have no idea how far they have come on their journey to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Often in science fiction an advanced alien species, or our own species from the future, visit us and seem amused at our scientific equations, just as we might be amused reading about medieval conceptions of the heavens. How far have we come? Hawkins asks this same question as he introduces the book (pp.4-5):

Ancient people tried hard to understand the universe, but they hadn’t yet developed our mathematics and science. … Today … scientists have pieced together a lot of knowledge about space. But what do we really know about the universe, and how do we know it? … What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end? Can we go backward in time? Recent breakthroughs in physics … suggest answers to some of these long-standing questions. Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun–or perhaps as ridiculous as [a flat earth being held up by] a tower of turtles.

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