Month: October 2010

Hawking vs. God

The November 2010 issue of Scientific American is now out, with my brief article on the controversy surrounding Stephen Hawking’s new book with Leonard Mlodinow.

The book stated that it’s possible to answer questions such as why the laws of physics are what they are and how the universe arose from nothingness “purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings.”

Those statements, which were not at all central to the book (which contained statements that we at SciAm expected to be much more controversial) were seen as denying the existence of God, and created a storm of controversy. The whole story was especially curious to us because we published an adaptation of the book in our October issue (The Elusive Theory of Everything).

In the article I quote an interview Hawking gave to Larry King on CNN and Marcelo Gleiser’s NPR blog, as well as my own interviews with Mlodinow, Leonard Susskind, and the theologist Robert E. Barron.

For this story I had also interviewed Deepak Chopra (who reviewed Hawking and Mlodinow’s book in the Huffington Post and debated Mlodinow on Larry King), but sadly that paragraph got cut out because of space limitations.

Chopra told me that he shared Hawking’s disbelief in the type of anthropomorphic God that dispenses miracles–a God that he says has been “killed” multiple times in the history of science, not by Nietsche but by the likes of Laplace, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins. (“How many times can you kill God?” he said.) But according to Chopra the Hawking and Mlodinow’s materialism and excessive reliance on determinism leaves no space for phenomena such as free will, the existence of which they dismiss too “cavalierly.”

Incidentally, I loved the book (despite some substantial flaws such as a complete lack of bibliographical references or of mentions of the work of many important physicists). I found it to have some of the clearest explanations of fundamental physics I’ve seen anywhere, especially of the quest for a grand unified theory of the fundamental forces.

What I found shocking in the book is that the authors essentially say that, after decades of search for a theory of everything, it is time for physicists to give up (although they disputed that characterization).

What happened is that in their quest to unify all the laws of Nature, physicists have discovered many different possible theories–among them, several different versions of string theory–that each apply in a limited range of situations.

That could be as good as it gets, according to Hawking. Physicists hope to find one all-encompassing theory, called M-theory, that would subsume all those string theories and constitute the final theory of everything. But Hawking seems to believe that there cannot be a way to write down such a single theory, and that we have to content ourselves with a “network” of string theories.

The book also is one of the places where one can read about Hawking’s own fascinating but arcane vision of “top-down cosmology,” something I wrote about years ago in Physics News Update.

Graphene Earns Discoverers a Nobel

Congratulations to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester for their Nobel Prize for Physics, announced today, for their research on the wonder carbon compound called graphene.

For more background, you can read my 2007 article “Electron Superhighway” from Science News, in which I interviewed Geim among other people.

Like many Nobelists before, Geim is a SciAm author: has written the Scientific American article on graphene, “Carbon Wonderland,” for our April 2008 issue, together with Philip Kim of Columbia. By the latest count, since the prize was established 144 Nobel laureates have written 234 articles for Scientific American. (Of course, by the time the Nobel prizes started the magazine had already existed for half a century.)

Would Wiretapping Laws Spell the End of Quantum Encryption?

Credit: NASA
The ink had not even dried on the stories about India and the U.A.E. trying to rein in BlackBerry encryption, when the New York Times on September 27 reported that the U.S. government plans to introduce a bill that would make it illegal to create and sell encryption technology that does not have a “back door” access.

Any encrypted means of communication — be it Skype or GMail — would have to include a feature that would allow law enforcement to decrypt messages under court approval.

As I write in my article, one unintended consequence of such legislation — one that no one seems to have thought through — is that it could kill the nascent industry of quantum encryption — and one of the main motivations for developing a quantum Internet.

Among the sources I quote in the article are MIT physicist Seth Lloyd, who wrote Privacy and the Quantum Internet for our October 2009 issue (requires subscription), and Artur Ekert, the inventor of one of the first quantum encryption algorithms.