Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

The Universe in a Nutshell

Saturn from Cassini 3-27-04
(Saturn image from Cassini (3-27-04) courtesy NASA, aquired from Wikipedia. Click image for a larger resolution)

When I was very young, living in Virginia, my dad woke me up in the middle of the night to go outside and look through the telescope. He had it pointing at Saturn, and for the first time, I saw the rings. This was back when the Voyager probes were sending images back from the gas giants, the days of Skylab and the Viking missions. Back then, it was easy to imagine that someday I would travel to the planets.

Those starry nights along with thrilling days spent at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum ignited one of the longest running passions of my life: astronomy.

Eventually, Skylab fell, the Moon got farther away, NASA went from exploring to transporting, the speed of light remained inviolable, and I gave up on thinking I would ever travel the stars. But I kept reading. I kept peering out through the telescope, every winter staring for hours on end at the Pleaides and the star nursery of Orion.

In college my love of observational astronomy developed into a fascination with the bizarre nature of theoretical and quantum physics that always led me back astronomical weirdness: neutron stars, quasars, magnetars, black holes, radio galaxies. Thinking about this stuff is to ponder the very nature of existence.

Endless fascination, of course, always brings me to books and so it was that I read Stephen Hawkings’s beautifully illustrated The Universe in a Nutshell. The book is a wide-ranging overview of Hawking’s thinking about the nature of the universe and indeed reality itself.

He covers general relativity and quantum mechanics before delving into the various attempts to reconcile the two, including: 11-dimesnional supergravity, branes, 10-dimensional membranes, superstrings, and m-theory. Black holes, imaginary time, time travel and the big bang come into play as well.

The all-encompassing M-theory seems the most fascinating and his lucid explanation of the possibility that we exist on a four dimensional brane is particularly compelling. In this scenario, three of the four fundamental forces (strong, weak, electromagnetic) propagate only on the brane while gravity propagates across the interdimensional space (or whatever you’d call it) to other branes. It’s an interesting attempt to unify gravity with the other forces, and one that I’ll definitely have to read more about.

Other than relativity and quantum mechanics, this was all new to me and somewhat difficult to absorb while reading in bed at night. Hawking, however, knows his audience for this book is not one of professional scientists, but rather curious laymen, and his authorial demeanor is that of a kindly guide leading a tour through the most amazing museum, a museum that in fact encompasses everything.

I love reading books like this because they open my mind to ideas that are as exciting and awe-inspiring as when I was a little kid looking into the telescope and seeing Saturn’s rings for the first time.


  1. I am more technically grounded than most and I find Quantum mechanics, n dimensional math etc mind numbing. Not because of its complexity, but because of its immensity and the need to abandon everything we viscerally know about the universe

    Hawking himself is an amazing individual. He begs many questions that I would not even presume to answer about circumstance driving us. I wonder how he will be remembered and memorialized? How would one blend the “Caryatid with a Stone” and “The Thinker” into a piece to characterize some one that has broken through misfortune and found brilliance?

  2. It really is a bit like jumping off a cliff into a… what? A Dali painting? I don’t know. It’s a journey I find thrilling even if I do not understand some of what I’m seeing. I once had an astronomy prof say that no one really understands quantum mechanics, you just learn to accept it.

    As to memorializing Hawking, there was a picture in the book from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Hawking was playing poker with Einstein, Newton, and Data on the holodeck. Hawking seemed to consider that quite an honor, though a Star Trek scene is probably now so enduring as stone.

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