Self Help

Briefer History of Time, A - Stephen W. Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

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Matheus Puppe

· 22 min read

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Here is a summary of the key points from the Table of Contents:

  • The book discusses our evolving understanding of the universe from ancient times to modern cosmology. It covers major theories like Newton’s laws, relativity, the expanding universe, the Big Bang, and current developments in quantum gravity and unifying physics.

  • Early chapters provide historical context and explain how scientists have developed tools like mathematics and the scientific method to study the universe. Later chapters delve into modern scientific theories about the nature of space, time, gravity, and the origins and fate of the universe.

  • The book explores big questions about where the universe came from, how it evolved, whether it had a beginning or will have an end, and if time travel is possible. It aims to share the excitement of recent discoveries that have transformed our picture of reality.

  • In addition to the 12 main chapters, there are sections on key figures like Einstein, Galileo and Newton. The book also includes glossary, acknowledgments, and information about the author and related works.

So in summary, the book traces the evolving scientific understanding of the universe from ancient to modern times, explaining major theories and discoveries while exploring fundamental questions about cosmology, physics and the nature of reality.

  • The masts and sails of a ship rising over the horizon before the hull becomes visible is evidence that the Earth is spherical. Since the Earth is a ball, distant parts of a ship will poke above the horizon line earlier than portions closer to the water.

  • In ancient Greece, careful observations of the night sky led people to note that five lights (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) did not follow the same fixed east-west path as most stars, but sometimes wandered off course and looped back. These were termed “planets,” meaning wanderers.

  • Ptolemy proposed a geocentric model of the universe where celestial spheres carried the planets in circles or epicycles to match their observed motions relative to Earth. Although complex, it allowed predictions but also had flaws like requiring the Moon’s distance to vary.

  • Copernicus proposed instead that the Sun was stationary at the center and planets orbited it in circles. Kepler later improved this to ellipses, matching observations. Galileo’s telescope observations of Jupiter’s moons disproving everything orbiting Earth supported Copernicus.

  • Newton later formulated universal gravity and laws of motion, explaining elliptical orbits as the result of the Sun’s gravitational pull, unifying planetary and terrestrial motions. This established the modern understanding of the solar system and universe.

  • Historically, scientists believed that bodies naturally stay at rest and require a force to be set in motion (Aristotle). Galileo experimented by dropping objects off the Leaning Tower of Pisa and found that all objects accelerate downward at the same rate regardless of weight, contradicting Aristotle.

  • Newton built upon Galileo’s work and formulated his laws of motion. According to Galileo’s experiments, a body rolling down a slope is acted upon by a constant force (gravity) which causes it to continuously speed up.

  • General Relativity later revealed a small discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit not explained by Newton’s theory. Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted Mercury’s motion more accurately. However, Newton’s theory remains useful for most practical applications where relativistic effects are negligible.

  • The goal of science is a single unified theory describing the entire universe, but it is difficult to achieve. Scientists instead develop partial theories describing limited observations and phenomena, which has proven a successful approach despite potential flaws.

  • Newton proposed his laws of motion, which state that a body at rest stays at rest and a body in motion stays in motion with constant velocity unless acted upon by a net external force. This challenged the previously held Aristotelian view that bodies need a continuous force to remain in motion.

  • Newton’s second law describes how applying a force changes the motion of a body in proportion to the mass of the body. Greater force produces greater acceleration.

  • Newton also proposed his law of universal gravitation, which described gravity as a force of attraction between all masses. This law explained orbital motions with great accuracy.

  • Importantly, Newton’s laws do not recognize an absolute state of rest or preferred frame of reference. Motion is relative, which puzzled Newton and others like Aristotle who believed in absolute space and time.

  • In the 20th century, studies of light led to realizations that the concepts of absolute space and time were incorrect. Time and distance measurements can depend on the observer’s frame of reference based on relativity principles. This challenged Newton’s view of absolute time.

So in summary, Newton revolutionized our understanding of motion and gravity but his refusal to accept relativity of spacetime was later resolved based on Einstein’s theory of relativity developed from experiments with light.

  • Roemer was one of the first scientists to measure the speed of light, based on observations of eclipses of Jupiter’s moons. His value of around 140,000 miles per second was not very accurate, but showed light has a finite speed.

  • Maxwell unified theories of electricity and magnetism in 1865, showing they are different aspects of the electromagnetic force. His equations predicted electromagnetic waves that travel at a fixed speed matching the speed of light.

  • The Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 found the speed of light was the same in all directions, contrary to the theory that light propagated through a stationary ether.

  • Einstein resolved this in 1905 by proposing the theory of relativity, eliminating the need for an ether. His fundamental postulate was that the laws of physics are the same for all observers, requiring everyone to measure the same speed of light.

  • This led to revolutionary implications like the relativity of simultaneity and time dilation, forces us to combine space and time into spacetime, and changed our fundamental ideas about the nature of space and time. Relativity took years to become widely accepted.

  • Einstein’s theory of general relativity suggests that gravity is not a force, but rather a consequence of spacetime being curved or warped by the distribution of mass and energy within it.

  • In GR, bodies like planets move along geodesics in curved spacetime, which are the straightest possible paths. Their curved orbits are not due to a gravitational force, but because spacetime itself is curved by massive objects like the Sun.

  • Einstein proposed GR in 1915 after several unsuccessful attempts to reconcile his earlier special theory of relativity with Newtonian gravity. Special relativity did not allow for instantaneous gravitational attraction.

  • In GR, objects in free fall always follow geodesics through 4D spacetime. In regions without matter, these geodesics correspond to straight lines in 3D space. But the presence of matter curves spacetime, causing paths in 3D space to appear curved.

  • GR makes similar predictions to Newtonian gravity for planet orbits, with the main difference being a small additional rate of rotation predicted for Mercury’s elliptical orbit due to the strong spacetime curvature near the Sun. This agreed with observations.

So in summary, GR revolutionized gravity by suggesting it results from curved 4D spacetime rather than a force, allowing it to be reconciled with special relativity unlike Newtonian gravity. This explains orbits as following straightest paths in curved spacetime.

  • General relativity predicts that gravitational fields should bend light. For example, the theory predicts light passing near the sun would be slightly bent inward due to the sun’s mass.

  • This bending of light can be observed during a solar eclipse, when the moon blocks the sun’s light and reveals stars near the sun that appear shifted from their true positions.

  • One of the first confirmations of Einstein’s theory came from a 1919 British expedition that observed light bending during a solar eclipse, matching Einstein’s prediction.

  • Another prediction is precession of Mercury’s orbit - over thousands of years the elliptical orbit slowly rotates, which was observed long before 1915 and supported Einstein’s theory.

  • More recent measurements using radar have found even smaller deviations in other planets’ orbits that agree with general relativity predictions.

  • The principle of equivalence suggests gravity’s effect on time - clocks closer to a massive body like Earth will tick slower than ones further away, an effect tested using accurate clocks in 1962.

  • Hubble used indirect methods to measure the distances to galaxies since their positions don’t change like nearby stars. He classified stars in nearby galaxies and used their known luminosities to calculate galaxy distances.

  • Hubble found that galaxies are very far away, with vast empty spaces between them. This proved that the Milky Way is just one galaxy among many.

  • Analyzing starlight spectra allows determination of star temperatures and atmospheric compositions. Specific absorption lines indicate the elements present.

  • Stellar spectrum analysis combined with known luminosities of local star types enabled Hubble to calculate distances to nine galaxies, establishing them as very distant objects outside our Milky Way.

  • This helped establish our modern picture of the universe as containing hundreds of billions of galaxies, with stars totaling an incomprehensibly vast number. It replaced the old view of a static universe centered on our galaxy.

  • Astronomers observed that the spectra of stars in other galaxies were redshifted, with the redshift proportional to the galaxy’s distance.

  • This redshift is due to the Doppler effect - light from receding objects appears redshifted as the wavelength is stretched.

  • The Doppler effect had previously been observed with sound waves, making it a known phenomenon.

  • The proportional relationship between redshift and distance discovered by Hubble meant the universe was expanding rather than static.

  • Friedmann had predicted an expanding universe from Einstein’s equations in 1922, years before Hubble’s observation.

  • Friedmann assumed the universe looked the same from any viewpoint, which seemed roughly true on large scales.

  • In 1965, Penzias and Wilson accidentally discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, which is uniform in all directions - strong evidence the universe is roughly the same everywhere.

  • This supported Friedmann’s assumption and showed it was a remarkably accurate description of the actual universe.

  • In the 1960s, physicists like Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles theorized that the early universe should have emitted microwave radiation from being very hot and dense. They predicted this radiation would still be detectable today as very redshifted microwaves.

  • Penzias and Wilson detected this cosmic microwave background radiation in 1965 without realizing its significance at first. Their discovery supported the big bang theory and earned them the 1978 Nobel Prize.

  • Friedmann’s cosmological model described an expanding universe where all galaxies move away from each other like markers on an inflating balloon. The farther apart galaxies are, the faster they recede.

  • Friedmann’s solutions predicted three possible types of universe models - expanding forever, recollapsing, or eternal slowing expansion. Which model applies depends on the rate of expansion and average density of matter.

  • Today we know the expansion rate but density is uncertain due to “dark matter” we can only infer. Even accounting for dark matter, the average density appears too low to halt expansion, indicating the universe will expand forever. However, new observations in the late 1990s provided surprising evidence that challenged this conclusion.

  • Recent studies of tiny ripples in the cosmic microwave background radiation indicate that the universe is flat, not curved as some earlier models suggested. However, there does not seem to be enough matter and dark matter to account for a flat universe. This has led physicists to postulate the existence of dark energy.

  • Observations also show that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating, not slowing down as the Friedmann models predicted. Gravity should cause slowing, not acceleration. This acceleration may provide evidence that Einstein’s cosmological constant, representing antigravity effects, is needed.

  • In the Big Bang model, all solutions to Einstein’s equations imply that about 13.7 billion years ago, the entire universe was incredibly hot and dense, compressed to a single point. This marked the beginning of time.

  • As the universe rapidly expanded and cooled in the seconds and minutes after the Big Bang, different elementary particles like photons, electrons, protons and neutrons formed based on the declining temperature. Nucleosynthesis led to the formation of light atomic nuclei like deuterium and helium.

  • With new observational technologies, we are continually learning more about the early universe and how its rapid evolution led to the present expanding cosmos we observe today. However, what set the Big Bang into motion remains unknown.

  • In the hot big bang model of the early universe, about one-quarter of the mass converted to helium, with some heavy hydrogen and other light elements. The remaining neutrons decayed to protons (hydrogen nuclei).

  • This was first proposed by Gamow, Alpher, and Bethe in 1948. They predicted cosmic microwave background radiation from the early hot stage, which was discovered in 1965.

  • Predictions of early element abundances were inaccurate then but agree well now with improved nuclear reaction knowledge.

  • Inflation theory proposed by Alan Guth in 1980 explains how early universe irregularities were smoothed out, resolving issues with big bang model.

  • After a few hours, helium and lithium production stopped. Over millions of years, the universe expanded and cooled until atoms formed.

  • Gravity caused denser regions to collapse, forming galaxies and stars which generate energy through nuclear fusion. More massive stars use fuel faster.

  • When stars run out of fuel, they collapse, heating to fuse heavier elements. Very massive stars may collapse to black holes.

  • Einstein’s general theory of relativity, proposed in 1915, provided a consistent framework for understanding how gravity affects light.

  • In 1939, Robert Oppenheimer was the first to apply general relativity to model the gravitational collapse of a massive star.

  • His work showed that as a star collapses under its own gravity, the gravitational pull at its surface strengthens, bending light rays inward more and more.

  • Eventually, if the star shrinks below a critical radius, light cannot escape - this forms an “event horizon” marking the boundary of a black hole.

  • Within the event horizon, tremendous tidal forces would tear anything apart due to the extreme difference in gravitational pull over small distances.

  • For an observer far away, the light from the collapsing star would appear increasingly redshifted and faint, eventually fading away as the black hole formed. But the black hole would continue exerting gravitational influence.

  • In some cases, the outer layers of a collapsing star may explode as a supernova before forming a black hole, emitting enormous amounts of light and radiation.

  • In a supernova, heavier elements produced near the end of a star’s life are flung back into the galaxy through a massive shock wave. These elements provide raw material for new generations of stars.

  • Our sun contains about 2% heavier elements from earlier supernovas. It formed 5 billion years ago from a rotating gas cloud containing debris from previous supernovas.

  • Small amounts of heavier elements from supernovas collected to form planets like Earth. The gold in our jewelry and uranium in reactors come from supernovas before our solar system formed.

  • Early Earth had a poisonous atmosphere without oxygen. Primitive life evolved that could survive in these conditions and eventually changed the atmosphere through releasing oxygen, allowing more complex life.

  • The theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics transformed our view of the universe in the 20th century. A quantum theory of gravity is needed to fully understand the universe from the beginning.

The quantum hypothesis solves the blackbody radiation problem by introducing the idea that electromagnetic energy is emitted and absorbed in discrete quanta called photons, rather than continuously.

The key points are:

  • The smallest amount of energy a blackbody can emit is that carried by one photon of a given frequency.

  • The energy of a photon increases with its frequency.

  • At very high frequencies, even a single photon would have more energy than the blackbody’s total available energy.

  • Therefore, no light could be emitted at those high frequencies, cutting off the diverging spectral radiation curve predicted by classical physics.

  • This finite cutoff means the total energy radiated is now limited, solving the blackbody radiation problem.

So in summary, quantizing electromagnetic radiation into photons provides a natural limit that resolves the paradox of an infinitely increasing radiation rate predicted by classical theories. It does so by disallowing emission below the energy of a single photon at very high frequencies.

  • Quantum mechanics describes the world using a new type of mathematics that does not view things strictly as particles or waves. Things can be thought of as either or both.

  • An important phenomenon is interference, normally seen in waves. In quantum mechanics, particles like electrons can also interfere.

  • The two-slit experiment illustrates this. Electrons sent through two slits individually still produce an interference pattern, meaning each electron must take both paths and interfere with itself.

  • This helped explain the structure of atoms. Early models had issues with electrons orbiting the nucleus, but quantum mechanics views them as waves. Only certain orbit sizes allow the electron waves to constructively interfere without cancelling out.

  • Niels Bohr’s model of allowed orbits was partially explaining hydrogen, but quantum mechanics provided the full explanation - the electron waves must circle in orbits where the circumference is a whole number of wavelengths.

  • This allowed calculation of more complex atomic and molecular orbits and structures, forming the basis of chemistry, biology and predicting what we observe.

  • In Richard Feynman’s formulation of quantum theory, a particle takes every possible path from the source to the screen, not just the direct path.

  • Quantum theory underlies modern science and technology like computers and electronics. It has not been fully incorporated into gravity and cosmology.

  • General relativity may need to be altered at the quantum level to account for singularities like black holes. Experiments still support general relativity because gravitational fields are usually weak.

  • A quantum theory of gravity is needed to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics. It should incorporate Feynman’s sum over histories formulation and Einstein’s view of gravity as curved spacetime.

  • In a quantum theory of gravity, spacetime may be finite but have no boundary or singularities. This would remove the need for a creator to set initial boundary conditions for the universe. Spacetime and the universe would be completely self-contained with no beginning or end.

  • Time travel to the future is allowed by relativity by accelerating close to light speed and returning. Time travel to the past may also be possible through phenomena like wormholes, though current physics does not fully describe how it would work.

  • Time travel into the past is theoretically possible according to general relativity, which allows spacetimes that permit closed timelike curves (CTCs). However, observations of the early universe indicate it did not have the curvature required for time travel.

  • Faster-than-light travel is necessary for time travel, as traveling to the past implies arriving before starting the journey. But relativity says exceeding light speed is impossible based on experiments with particles.

  • Wormholes are theoretical shortcuts through spacetime that could allow traveling between distant points faster than light by shortening the distance. They were first proposed by Einstein and Rosen but would need negative energy to stabilize.

  • Quantum theory allows for negative energy densities if total energy remains positive. This suggests spacetime could be warped to allow CTCs and time travel through mechanisms like wormholes, provided negative energy exists.

  • Feynman’s path integral formulation indicates time travel occurs microscopically, as an antiparticle moving backward in time is equivalent to a particle moving forward under CPT symmetry. But macroscopic human time travel remains hypothetical.

Here is a summary of the key points about ears as an antiparticle traveling forward in time:

  • In quantum field theory, antiparticles can be viewed as particles traveling backward in time. This is known as the Feynman-Stueckelberg interpretation.

  • A virtual particle-antiparticle pair produced near a black hole could result in one particle falling into the black hole while the other escapes.

  • This could be interpreted equivalently as the antiparticle traveling backward in time out of the black hole. As it reaches the point where the pair was formed, it scatters off the black hole’s gravitational field and emerges as a particle moving forward in time away from the black hole.

  • This provides an alternative intuitive picture for how black holes can emit radiation. The outgoing radiation appears to be particles emitted by the black hole, but can equivalently be viewed as antiparticles traveling backward in time out of the black hole.

  • This interpretation suggests that quantum field theory allows for microscopic time travel into the past via virtual antiparticles. However, many questions remain about whether macroscopic time travel allowing change of the past could truly be possible.

So in summary, the ears/antiparticle perspective provides a reinterpretation of black hole radiation and hints that quantum physics may permit microscopic backwards time travel, but major uncertainties still exist around time travel on macroscopic scales.

  • In the early 20th century, physicists thought all phenomena could be explained by properties of continuous matter like elasticity and heat conduction. Atomic structure and the uncertainty principle ended that view.

  • In 1928, Max Born believed a Dirac equation for the proton would finish theoretical physics within six months. However, discovering the neutron and nuclear forces disproved that prediction.

  • Quantum theory says forces arise from exchange of force-carrying particles between matter particles. Gravitational force comes from gravitons, electromagnetic from photons, weak nuclear from W and Z bosons, strong nuclear from gluons.

  • The four forces were once seen as distinct but physicists now seek a grand unified theory (GUT) incorporating them all. A full theory including gravity remains elusive as general relativity is not quantum while other theories depend on quantum mechanics.

  • The uncertainty principle predicts virtual particle-antiparticle pairs appearing in empty space. Incorporating this feature into a quantum theory of gravity has proven very difficult but remains an important goal for a complete unified theory.

  • Virtual particle pairs in quantum field theory would have infinite energy and mass, contradicting observations.

  • Renormalization addresses this by introducing new infinities that cancel out the original infinities, leaving small finite quantities that can be fitted to data. However, it does not allow predicting particle properties from the theory.

  • Applying renormalization to general relativity is difficult because there are only two quantities that can be adjusted to remove infinities. This does not work, so quantum gravity predicts infinite properties.

  • String theory proposes that fundamental particles are not points but vibrations of tiny strings. This provides a framework to potentially unify quantum theory and general relativity without infinities, but requires 10-26 spacetime dimensions.

  • The extra dimensions are hypothesized to be compactified into imperceptibly small scales, which is why we only observe our usual 3 spatial dimensions. String theory remains challenging to fully formulate and test empirically.

  • String theory proposes that space-time has 10 dimensions at a very small scale, around a million million million million millionth of an inch.

  • However, we only perceive 4 dimensions - 3 spatial and 1 time dimension. The extra dimensions are hypothesized to be curled up tightly into a very small ball, so we don’t notice them.

  • For life to exist, the dimensions need to allow for stable planetary orbits, atomic structures, etc. Having more than 3 space dimensions or fewer dimensions would not support life as we know it.

  • The anthropic principle suggests we see 4 dimensions because intelligent life requires stable conditions that only 3 space dimensions provide. The other dimensions must be curled up small.

  • String theory does not determine which of its many possibilities is realized in our universe. Dualities showed different string theories can result in the same 4D physics.

  • There may not be a single unified theory, but overlapping approximations that together describe nature, like using multiple maps to depict the Earth’s surface.

  • The ultimate nature of physical theory is uncertain - there could be a complete unified theory, an infinite sequence of improving theories, or no theory at all if events are truly random.

This passage summarizes the evolution of scientific theories about the universe over time:

  • Ancient views saw natural phenomena as controlled by spirits/gods who acted human-like and unpredictably. They inhabited things like the sun, moon, rivers.

  • Gradually it was noticed some events had regularity/predictability, like the sun’s movements, even without sacrifices. The sun and moon came to be seen as gods obeying strict laws.

  • More regularities and laws were discovered as civilization developed, especially in the last 300 years. This led Laplace to propose scientific determinism - the universe’s evolution could be precisely predicted by a set of laws, given its initial state.

  • However, Laplace’s determinism was incomplete as it didn’t explain how laws/initial state were chosen. God was hypothesized to do this but not intervene after.

  • Quantum mechanics introduced inherent uncertainty, showing Laplace’s hopes for precise determinism cannot be realized. While laws govern the universe, some quantities cannot be precisely predicted.

  • The passage summarizes the shifting philosophical and scientific views of the universe over human history, from supernatural control to attempts at a complete deterministic theory, and recognition of limits introduced by quantum mechanics.

  • Quantum mechanics describes particles as waves rather than having definite positions and velocities. The equations can predict how the wave evolves over time deterministically, but measuring the particle introduces unpredictability.

  • This book focuses on gravity because it shapes the large-scale structure of the universe, though it is the weakest force. General relativity implies the universe had a beginning (Big Bang) and potentially an end (Big Crunch) due to gravitational collapse.

  • Combining general relativity and quantum mechanics allows for the possibility of a finite, self-contained universe without singularities. This would mean the universe is completely described by a unified theory with no freedom for God to choose initial conditions.

  • Even if there is a unique unified theory, it does not answer why the universe exists or what “breathes fire” into the theory. Discovering the ultimate explanation would be understanding the “mind of God.” The book argues philosophers have fallen behind in asking questions about the universe’s existence as science has advanced.

Here are summaries of the key scientists discussed:

  • Albert Einstein - Known for his theory of relativity and photoelectric effect discovery. Also actively involved in anti-war activism and supporting Zionism. He warned of nuclear dangers and advocated for international control of nuclear weapons.

  • Galileo Galilei - Pioneered modern science by arguing observations of the real world were important. Supported Copernican theory that Earth orbits the Sun, contradicting the Catholic Church. Faced censorship and was put under house arrest by the Inquisition for his scientific views.

  • Isaac Newton - Formulated classical mechanics and laws of motion/universal gravitation in his masterwork “Principia Mathematica”. Clashed with other scientists due to his difficult personality. Held positions of power like the Royal Society presidency that he used in disputes. Made important contributions to optics as well.

  • Newton had disputes with two other scientists - John Flamsteed and Gottfried Leibniz.

  • With Flamsteed, Newton arranged to have Flamsteed’s unpublished work seized and prepared for publication by Edmond Halley, Flamsteed’s enemy. Flamsteed took the case to court and prevented the distribution. Newton was angry and removed references to Flamsteed from later editions of his work Principia.

  • Both Newton and Leibniz independently developed calculus. A dispute arose over who discovered it first. Newton had actually discovered it earlier but published later. Newton stacked committees investigating the dispute with his friends who ruled in his favor, accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. Newton also anonymously reviewed committee reports in his favor. He took great satisfaction in “breaking Leibniz’s heart” after Leibniz’s death.

  • During these disputes, Newton had left academia for a career in politics and as Warden of the Royal Mint, where he conducted an anti-counterfeiting campaign that sent some men to the gallows.

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