Critical thinking mode on
Science non-fiction: read with caution
A few thoughts triggered by the preface of Hawking's "On the Shoulders of Giants"
It is very important to popularize science. Not only it contributes to higher level of general knowledge, but also creates more transparency. It is great that there are more and more researchers and journalists who share this view and link general public with the "egg-headed" (quoting my favorite Quantum Mechanics professor).

However popular science literature is tricky. One cannot (and should not) use too many equations if at all, and an extreme care must be taken about the wording. I have seen too many people working at CERN who still shudder at the expression "God's particle", and I personally am not very happy that for most people Quantum Mechanics is equal to the unfortunate Schrödinger's cat.

Another very important aspect is author's integrity and professional ethics. It is author's responsibility to make sure that the information is correct, statistically representative and presented in a non-biased way. A famous example is that of Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was a great scientist but he has not questioned his data showing the benefits of taking supplementary C vitamin to fight cold enough. Pharma companies took it from there. Despite of the fact that current evidence doesn't show any connection between supplementary C vitamin intake and relief of cold symptoms, many of us still believe that taking C vitamin helps to cure cold (a joke has it: "if you treat cold it is cured in 7 days; if you don't it passes in a week"). A lot of money is spent expensive vitamin complexes and nutrition supplements instead of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish (vegetarian, vegan and other similar diets/lifestyle choices are a different story, of course). So here's to all the researchers and experts who know their statistics, explain things clearly and don't try to bias other people.

And now it's time for a story that inspired the discussion above and another example of how even most accomplished and celebrated scientific minds shall be taken with a grain of salt.

"On the Shoulders of Giants"
A book "On the shoulders of Giants" is a compilation of classical works by Copernicus, Kepler, Galilei, De Salvo, Newton and Einstein, assembled by Stephen Hawking. He has also written several essays which are included in this volume, printed in 2003. This book has called my attention because it was recently translated to Russian. On this occasion, I took a chance to read the preface.

First Hawking introduced the authors of the compilation and outlines the evolution of their ideas. Then he presented the conflict of the anthropic and the so-called objective impersonal principles of physical reality perception. Finally, he contrasted this dualism with the idea of multiple universes, which somehow brought back the anthropic principle. I am not going to argue with this particular line of logic here. Something else has caught my attention: as Hawking unfolded his argumentation I found the following statement:
«... (in the framework of) the General Theory of Relativity... space and time are curved and become dynamic. This means that they are subject to quantum theory and that the Universe itself has every possible shape and history.»
Stephen Hawking
On The Shoulders of Giants
I have a problem with this argument because it actually is not an argument but a collection of three logically unrelated statements. Let's go through them one by one. General Theory of Relativity (GTR) introduces curved and dynamic time-space. Ok, so far so good. The next statements relates the Universe to Quantum Theory. Being nonlinear and dynamic does not make your system or Universe, for that matter, quantum. According to what I was taught in Quantum Mechanics 101, the characteristic size of a quantum system must be less than a certain parameter associated with its mass and speed. This parameter is called the De Broglie wavelength and introduces a relationship between the Planck constant and the momentum of the system (that is, mass times velocity). Because of this parameter Quantum Physics is usually confined to small scale. Despite of numerous attempts, by Hawking himself among others, GTR and Quantum Theory have not been generalized under any unifying theory yet.

Therefore, the third statement about a all possible shapes and histories of the Universe is also questionable. I think what Hawking referred to was the Everett many-worlds interpretation formulated for quantum systems. An extreme caution is needed when scaling up quantum mechanical ideas: it is considered a terribly counter-intuitive discipline for a good reason. However I would go as far as to suggest that the objective impersonal approach can lead to the idea of many universes, though maybe somewhat different. The event of the Big Bang is strange and complicated enough to leave enough room for many other things outside of our physical and mental reach. Therefore there is no strong reason to think that other universes could not exist.

Many of my readers might have a better understanding of theoretical physics in general and Quantum Theory in particular. Please let me know if you think I have missed or misinterpreted something here!


A few further remarks
The preface of Hawking's book became a dinner conversation topic. The focus of the discussion soon shifted to Hawking's paranoia related to Artificial Intelligence and self-destruction of the mankind and to how peculiar it is that an expert in cosmology, takes the liberty to make so many strong statements about AI (too many Terminator movies?)

This question has sparked a sudden association. I am a huge fan of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationaity by Eliezer Yudkowsky. If you are not familiar with the book, here's a brief recap. Harry Potter grows up in a Biochemistry professor's family and so he is extremely intellectually developed and scientifically well-informed. This significantly redefines the story, however it runs in parallel with the original scenario, at least as far as the characters and the key events are concerned. One of the leading characters is Professor Quirrell, and one of his main preoccupations is to avoid a nuclear collapse as a result of which the entire Solar System would be destroyed. His confidence in the inevitability of this scenario is surprisingly reminiscent of the tone of Stephen Hawking's statements related to the AI. Coincidentally Eliezer Yudkowskiy, the author of the HPMoR does research in the field of the AI, so I wonder if how much Professor Quirrell was influenced by the famous cosmologist.

Going back to the original topic, the work by Eliezer Yudkowsky is a great example of popularizing science done right. If you are curious, please follow the link above (the book is freely accessible). There is a fantastic audio version of the book, too.
This site was made on Tilda — a website builder that helps to create a website without any code
Create a website