Black Holes and
Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore
A mind-stretching experience
Reading the works of Stephen Hawking is like listening to opera: I don't understand everything that's said, but I enjoy the experience.
Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist from England, surprised a lot of people (including himself) with the success of A Brief History of Time, published in 1988. The reissue of that book in an expanded and illustrated edition reminded me to pick up the sequel, a collection of essays titled Black Holes and Baby Universes. This later work differs from A Brief History in offering intimate glimpses of Hawking's personal life and his struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease.
Born in Oxford in 1942, Hawking grew up in Highgate, north London. His father was a medical researcher; his mother the daughter of a family doctor. Most of their neighbors were also scientific and academic people. "In another country they would have been called intellectuals," Hawking writes, "but the English have never admitted to having any intellectuals."
Though he describes himself as an unremarkable student, Hawking says he was always interested in how things operated and used to take things apart to see how they worked. "But I was not so good at putting them back together again. My practical abilities never matched up to my theoretical inquiries." From the age of 13 or 14, he knew he wanted to do research in physics because it offered the hope of unlocking the secrets of the universe.
His decision to pursue a career in theoretical physics proved fortunate, for he had barely begun work on his Ph.D. at Cambridge when, at age 21, he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig's disease. Theoretical physics was one of the few fields of scientific research in which his condition would not be a serious handicap.
Hawking married in 1965, two years after he was diagnosed with ALS. While still in his twenties, and already confined to a wheelchair, he developed new mathematical techniques to theorize about conditions in the early universe. His work showed that there was a time in the past when all of the galaxies were on top of each other and the density of the universe was off the scale. This high-density state is called the "big bang" singularity.
Hawking is also famous for his work on black holes, which form when massive stars burn out and collapse in on themselves. The gravitational field of a collapsed star is so strong that light cannot escape but is dragged back. It is impossible for us to see such a star because the light it emits does not reach us; thus the name "black hole."
I don't pretend to actually understand everything Hawking writes about black holes, baby universes, curved space, the linked nature of space-time, or the possibility that the universe may have many alternative histories. For all of that, his writing is remarkably accessible. When I read his essays, I get a comfortable sort of feeling, as if I were listening to music. I do not need to analyze each note to enjoy an aria; the music's cumulative effect is what counts. Neither do I need to fully understand Hawking's ideas to enjoy his writing.
Readers who shy away from Hawking's books because they think the material is beyond their grasp are missing some fine writing. They're also denying themselves the pleasure of his dry British wit. I frequently laughed aloud at the jokes and anecdotes sprinkled through these essays. Black holes, Hawking ruminates, might be useful for getting rid of garbage or even some of one's friends. The search for a grand unified theory (a "GUT") that describes the universe and everything in it is a slow process because "it is too difficult to think up a complete theory of everything all at one go (though this does not seem to stop some people; I get two or three unified theories in the mail each week)."
Whether you're working on your own theory of everything, or you thought "black hole" simply described a teenager's bedroom, you won't come away empty from an encounter with the boundless mind of Stephen Hawking. So go ahead—put on a Lohengrin CD and stretch out with Hawking's essays. Space and time may never look the same to you again.
—First published in the Winter 1997 Friends News, a publication of Friends of the Fort Worth Public Library, Inc.