The Big Questions About Our Universe
Professor Stephen Hawking asks some Big Questions about our universe: How did the universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone? And he discusses how we might go about answering them.
Stephen Hawking's scientific investigations have shed light on the origins of the cosmos, the nature of time and the ultimate fate of universe. His bestselling books for a general audience have given an appreciation of physics to millions.
Please subscribe to Science & Reason:
"We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special." (Stephen Hawking)
There is nothing bigger or older than the universe. Your questions I would like to talk about are: One, where did we come from? How did the universe come into being? Are we alone in the universe? Is there alien life out there? What is the future of the human race?
Up until the 1920s, everyone thought the universe was essentially static and unchanging in time. Then it was discovered that the universe was expanding. Distant galaxies were moving away from us. This meant they must have been closer together in the past. If we extrapolate back, we find we must have all been on top of each other about 15 billion years ago. This was the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe.
But was there anything before the Big Bang? If not, what created the universe? Why did the universe emerge from the Big Bang the way it did? We used to think that the theory of the universe could be divided into two parts. First, there were the laws like Maxwell's equations and general relativity that determined the evolution of the universe, given its state over all of space at one time. And second, there was no question of the initial state of the universe.
We have made good progress on the first part, and now have the knowledge of the laws of evolution in all but the most extreme conditions. But until recently, we have had little idea about the initial conditions for the universe. However, this division into laws of evolution and initial conditions depends on time and space being separate and distinct. Under extreme conditions, general relativity and quantum theory allow time to behave like another dimension of space. This removes the distinction between time and space and means the laws of evolution can also determine the initial state. The universe can spontaneously create itself out of nothing.
Moreover, we can calculate a probability that the universe was created in different states. These predictions are in excellent agreement with observations by the WMAP satellite of the cosmic microwave background, which is an imprint of the very early universe. We think we have solved the mystery of creation. Maybe we should patent the universe and charge everyone royalties for their existence.
Stephen Hawking is perhaps the world's most famous living physicist. A specialist in cosmology and quantum gravity and a devotee of black holes, his work has probed the origins of the cosmos, the nature of time and the universe's ultimate fate - earning him accolades including induction into the Order of the British Empire. To the public, he's best known as an author of bestsellers such as The Universe in a Nutshell and A Brief History of Time, which have brought an appreciation of theoretical physics to millions.
Though the motor neuron disorder ALS has confined Hawking to a wheelchair, it hasn't stopped him from lecturing widely, making appearances on television shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons -- and planning a trip into orbit with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. (He recently experienced weightlessness aboard Zero Gravity Corporation's "Vomit Comet.") A true academic celebrity, he uses his public appearances to raise awareness about potential global disasters - such as global warming - and to speak out for the future of humanity: "Getting a portion of the human race permanently off the planet is imperative for our future as a species," he says.
Hawking serves as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, where he continues to contribute to both high-level physics and the popular understanding of our universe.