On the Nobel Prize for Physics, Cosmology, and Popular Science Writing

I’ve been itching to comment on this matter since this award was announced but work has been such a pesky distraction.

What came to my mind when those Swedes made the announcement was: Poor Stephen Hawking! If he had been alive, he surely would have shared the award with his collaborator Roger Penrose.

Earlier in the 19th century, Einstein’s theory of general relativity had predicted that spacetime could be deformed by a sufficiently compact mass to form a black hole, a region where gravity is so strong that nothing—neither particles nor electromagnetic radiation—can escape from it.

Years later, Penrose had provided the mathematical proof for the existence of black holes and he had worked with Hawking to elucidate their nature.

Alas, the Swedish Academy that honoured Roger “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” does not do posthumous awards. Like last year, this year’s award is clearly for physical cosmology. The other two scientists – Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel – to share the 10 million Swedish Krona (about 960,000 USD) with Penrose were recognized “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”. In 2019, it was awarded “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” with one half to James Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”, the other half jointly to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”

Cosmology, that branch of science concerned with the origin and fate of the universe – Big Bang, black holes, multiverses, stellar involution, and other similarly mystifying things – now seems to be the doyen of the branches of physics. It is the Empyrean summit of the physical sciences that pokes into the lofty floating clouds of philosophy and metaphysics.

Roger Penrose is the only one of the winning trio that I know. Not that I have met him before o! Ehen. Penrose caught my attention because he wrote a popular book. The American and the German are aliens to me. They must have been writing only textbooks and unreadable scientific papers. OK, I found that Andrea wrote a 40-page You Can Be A Woman Astronomer, one in a series of You Can Be A Woman This, You Can Be A Woman That books. These are books written to encourage women to do science. Laudable. We need more women like her.

Scientific geniuses, if you want us to know what you are saying, biko, write a popular science book. And make it sweet and readable. Many great scientists have achieved that in times past and present. Write like the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. Write like the Carl Sagan of Cosmos. Write like Tyson de Grasse of the Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

Write like the Charles Darwin of The Origin of Species. Write like the Richard Dawkins of The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth.

Learn from the science journalist Dava Sobel who wrote a book called The Planets. Her prose is so full of joy.

Check out this beauty from the book:

The Moon itself refuses to be confined to the night. It spends half its time in the daylight sky, where many people take no notice of it at all, or mistake it for a cloud. Only for a few days each month does the Moon truly vanish, rendered invisible in the vicinity of the Sun. The rest of the time the inescapable Moon changes shape by the hour, waxing and waning and whining for attention.

And this:

The planets return the favor of the Sun’s light by reflecting its rays, and in this manner they pretend to shine, though they emit no light of their own. The Sun is the Solar System’s sole light-giving body; all the others glow by reflected glory. Even the full Moon that illumines so many lovely Earthly evenings owes its silvery light to Sunbeams bouncing off the dark lunar soil. The Earth shines just as beautifully when viewed from the Moon, and for the same reason.

Every paragraph, every sentence, struts with uncommon elegance.

Ehen, where was I? OK, yes, the popular science book that Penrose wrote in 1989. It is called The Emperor’s New Mind. Interestingly, it’s not really about cosmology. It is mainly about artificial intelligence (AI) and the physics of consciousness. Stay with me. Taking the reader on breathtaking excursion through artificial intelligence, Turing machines, classical physics, quantum physics and astrophysics, he makes these points: The brain is not just a biological computer. A computer is merely a machine that executes algorithms. Meaning it simply carries out a series of instructions. It cannot think. The human mind functions differently. Artificial intelligence will not be able to what the human mind does. Computers cannot generate consciousness. If the human mind is not analogous to the computer, how then does the brain work? Here he proposes quantum physics. He thinks that the human mind functions based on the laws of quantum physics. Ah. The brilliantly written book unusually for a popular science book contains some mathematical notations and equations. About these he counsels:

At a number of places in this book I have resorted to the use of mathematical formulae, unabashed and unheeding of warnings that are frequently given: that each such formula will cut down the general readership by half. If you are a reader who finds any formula intimidating (and most people do), then I recommend a procedure that I normally adopt myself when such an offending line presents itself. The procedure is, more or less, to ignore that line completely and to skip over to the next actual line of text! Well, not exactly this; one should spare the poor formula a perusing, rather than a comprehending glance, and then press onwards. After a little, if armed with new confidence, one may return to that neglected formula and try to pick out some salient features. The text itself may be helpful in letting one know what is important and what can be safely ignored about it. If not, then do not be afraid to leave a formula behind altogether.

When the book came out, he was, of course, criticized by many proponents of strong AI. He responded to them with The Shadows of the Mind (1994) and The Large, the Small and the Human Mind (1997) which I have not read. I heard that those popular books incorporate observations made by an anesthesiologist. They further the initial ideas, advance new ones and launch new vistas of thinking about how the brain works.

Stephen Hawking also wrote one of the best-selling popular science books of all time – A Brief History of Time (1988). By the time Hawking died in 2018 it had been translated into about 40 languages and sold more than 25 million copies. It’s generally easy to read but rather heavy in some places. In fact, a more accessible, illustrated, and updated version – A Briefer History of Time – was published in collaboration with Leonard Mlodinow in 2006. It’s highly recommended.

Finally, if I were to recommend three books on the topic to the lay reader, they would be Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, The Planets, and Cosmos.

In these three, you will luxuriate in the finest pieces of popular science writing as you soak up the most interesting things in astrophysics and imbibe the grandest ideas about the cosmos. You will come away infected with their sense of wonder at an amazing universe.

But if you want one book, just one book, that provides a panoramic view of the great scientific inventions and discoveries since the beginning in the most digestible prose then look for Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Meanwhile, let’s see whether next year the Nobel Prize for Physics will still reward scientists who have done incredible work to make the universe reveal its bottomless secrets.

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