March 17, 2018
Reflections on the Life of Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking is being rightly memorialized for his indomitable spirit through a half century of ALS, his wit, and, of course, his intellectual brilliance. Nerds like me fondly remember his “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Big Bang Theory” appearances.
But I am more interested today in his signature scientific achievement, nearly 45 years ago—the discovery of what is now known as “Hawking radiation,” which is the heat that escapes from black holes. It was a counter-intuitive discovery that even he needed to be persuaded of, but it preserved one of our core assumptions about the physical universe—the conservation of energy.
We can appreciate his reluctance. If the universe can, by itself, create or destroy energy (or “information”), then it can exist in perpetuity as a closed system. If you read his signature book, “A Brief History of Time,” you’ll see that he was committed to a metaphysical perspective called positivism, which a closed physical universe would ultimately support.
If energy is ultimately conserved, however, the long-ago explosion of a quantum singularity (an event called the Big Bang, whose dynamics Hawking helped us to understand) is unfathomable without (let’s be coy for a moment) “external interference.” It would have involved the creation or inexplicable release of immense energy… from whence?
Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist who first conceived the idea of a Big Bang In 1931, was also a Catholic priest. He thought that such external interference, in the form of divine causation, made perfect sense. So do I. A God who creates AND conserves, a God who energizes and enlightens, a God who radiates and restores…I think I know that God! Maybe you do too?
By the way, he’s the same God who says to people afflicted by ALS and other debilitating diseases, “You are made in my image too. I love you too. Show the world another way to be fully human, fully alive.” Stephen Hawking may not have known the God who said it, but it seems that somehow, somewhere along the way he got that message. 🙂 R.I.P.