Leaping the Abyss

Stephen Hawking on black holes, unified field theory, and Marilyn Monroe.

(Page 5 of 6)

"So it is not easy to see what meaning can be given to the question, 'Why does the universe exist?' But it is a question that one can't help asking."

As usual, the ability to pose a question simply and clearly in no way implied a similar answer -- or that an answer even existed.

After the dining hall, high table moved to the senior common room upstairs. We relaxed along a long, polished table in comfortable padded chairs, enjoying the traditional crisp walnuts and ancient aromatic port, Cuban cigars, and arch conversation, occasionally skewered by a witty interjection from Stephen.

Someone mentioned American physicist Stephen Weinberg's statement, in The First Three Minutes, that the more we comprehend the universe, the more meaningless it seems. Stephen doesn't agree, and neither do I, but he has a better reason. "I think it is not meaningful in the first place to say that the universe is pointless, or that it is designed for some purpose."

I asked, "No meaning, then, to the pursuit of meaning?"

"To do that would require one to stand outside the universe, which is not possible."

Again the image of the gulf between the observer and the object of study. "Still," I persisted, "there is amazing structure we can see from inside."

"The overwhelming impression is of order. The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws. If one liked, one could say that this order was the work of God. Einstein thought so."

One of the college fellows asked, "Rational faith?"

Stephen tapped quickly. "We shouldn't be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There's not much personal about the laws of physics."

Walnuts eaten, port drunk, cigars smoked, it was time to go. When we left, Stephen guided his wheelchair through the shadowy reaches of the college, indulging my curiosity about a time-honored undergraduate sport: climbing Cambridge.

At night, young men sometimes scramble among the upper reaches of the steepled old buildings, scaling the most difficult points. They risk their necks for the glory of it. Quite out of bounds, of course. Part of the thrill is eluding the proctors who scan the rooftops late at night, listening for the scrape of heels. There is even a booklet about roof climbing, describing its triumphs and centuries-long history.

Stephen took me to a passageway I had been through many times, a shortcut to the Cam River between high, peaked buildings of undergraduate rooms. He said that it was one of the tough events, jumping across that and then scaling a steep, often slick roof beyond.

The passage looked to be about three meters across. I couldn't imagine leaping that gap from the slate-dark roofs. And at night, too. "All that distance?" I asked. My voice echoed in the fog.

"Yes," he said.

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