God, Black Holes, and Stephen Hawking

by Professor Edgar Andrews

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking is famous for his work on black holes but in his latest book The Grand Design he falls into a conceptual black hole of his own making.

Until recently Stephen Hawking was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and is now Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. He is a renowned scientist and a victim of motor neurone disease — a familiar figure on TV, seated in his motorised wheel-chair and speaking with a synthesized voice. In all, he is a remarkable man — a scientist to be honoured and respected. But that doesn’t mean he is right when he talks about God.

The grand design

In September 2010, Hawking and co-author Leonard Mlodinow published a book called The Grand Design. Although sub-titled New answers to the ultimate questions of life and hailed as a major step is solving the mystery of how the universe began, it is in fact a rather short book which speculates about creation using arguments that are by no means new. As one reviewer says, ‘It reads like a stretched magazine article … there is too much padding and too much recycling of long-stale material… I doubt whether The Grand Design would have been published if Hawking’s name were not on the cover’ (The Times Saturday Review, 11 September 2010).

Nevertheless, it hit No.1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list and the media were quick to seize on its purple passages — which claim that there was no need for a Creator to ‘light the blue touch-paper’ and initiate a ‘big-bang’ origin of the universe.

Why is no Creator needed? Because, says Hawking, the laws of science created the universe out of nothing, all on their own. Put another way, of course, this means that the laws of science are God. But this claim opens conceptual black holes from which there is no escape.

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Black holes

Stephen Hawking didn’t discover black holes but he has contributed notably to our understanding of them. A black hole is formed when a massive star burns out and collapses under the force of its own gravity. As the star shrinks, its internal gravitational field gets stronger and stronger until eventually even light can no longer escape from the collapsing star — which simply winks out leaving behind a literal ‘black hole’. Black holes seem to lie at the centre of many galaxies including our own.

The gravitational attraction of a black hole is so huge that anything close by gets sucked into it and simply disappears. No one knows what happens inside a black hole because the laws of physics no longer apply there. However, Hawking showed theoretically that although light can’t escape from it, a black hole should radiate energy. Vigorous attempts are currently being made by NASA and others to detect this ‘Hawking radiation’ experimentally. This is important, since the ability to test theories by experiment is what distinguishes real science from speculation masquerading as science.

Sadly, although Hawking’s new book pays lip-service to this distinction, he ends up presenting completely un-testable speculation about multiple universes and self-creating laws of physics…

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