It all began perchance.
An incredible number of universes (10E500) came to be—each with its own physical laws.
Ours turned out a particularly convivial place for humans, so here we are wondering how and why it all began. Some believe in God, others in science, yet others in science fiction. A few wish to believe in nothing and make that a religion too.
Our universe is a wondrous world.
Matter is force and all particles are like musical strings. When collapsing into each other they exchange photons and disperse all over the place creating curvatures in space-time. The latter is itself remarkable with not only four but eleven dimensions, whereby the majority are small and curled—thankfully because otherwise we would all be very confused, or maybe we already are, and just don’t know it.
It all comes down to the wave/particle duality (every ‘thing’ is a wave, and light is both) and the uncertainty principle (you will never get your GPS to work absolutely spot on). Every time we observe a system we alter its course—which probably explains why we have 10E500 universes in the first place. “A system has not just one history but every possible history.” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2010: 6)
Whilst reading the book you will get a sense for what it was like for Alice as she tried to gain access to Wonderland, changing back and forth sizes from the (very, very, very, very …) big to the (very, very, very, very … ) small—quite a mind boggling experience till she got the hang of it. Hawking and Mlodinow play a similar game as they beam back and forth from the tiniest world of quantum physics to the huge space of our cosmos and beyond. In parallel, they tell a story about the progress of scientific inquiry.
It is a magnificent journey and the authors are for the most part successful in explaining the various components of what is now known as the M-theory, which is the follow-up of the string theory, and hopefully the answer to everything. Except that it is not really a grand theory in the traditional sense.
This is because the M-theory is not one single theory but a network of theories, each covering only one area, and—watch out—in case of overlap, all apply. This is not science fiction, it is science, and there is both mathematics and experiments to back it. It is an elegant and smart model with an amusing and intuitive touch, but the science behind it is all but simple, and that is what experimental and theoretical physicists are still struggling with.
As for the name ‘M’, that is sort of a mystery, but I suspect it is either modelled according to ‘M’ in James Bond or the ‘M’ drawing sketch-book of the treacle-well in Wonderland. Theoretical physicists can be terribly childish. (They also call the habitable zone of a star ‘Goldilocks’ …)
The book also represents an attempt to refute the religious narrative on all this. Our universe, write Hawking and Mlodinow, is full of imperfections for which science is inventing all sorts of nice little stories. It is a playground for randomness, (special and general) relativity, synchronicity, mediocrity (yes, there is a principle of mediocrity too!), supersymmetries, supergravity, constants that are ‘off’, asymptomatic (!) freedoms and positive and negative infinities that don’t cancel out (bummer!). In other words, it is a mess. Surely God(dess) would have figured it out better than that!
Humour aside, there is a very nice little idea behind this which is as difficult to capture as the golden snitch in Quidditch (of ‘Harry Potter’).
That is: if observing a system will alter its course, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ are inextricably linked together. By asking why, we alter the how—and vice-versa.
As Alice falls down the long rabbit hole, she gets sleepy, “and went on saying to herself, in a dreamy sort of way, ‘Do cats eat bats? Do cats eat bats?’ and sometimes ‘Do bats eat cats?’, for, you see, as she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it.” (Lewis 1971 : 11).