Understanding our vast universe isn’t for everyone

  • Larry Simoneaux
  • Monday, August 1, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Just finished re-reading an International Bestseller.

I’d been meaning to do this for some time, but kept putting it off. It was a tough read the first time through. That was when I actually believed I might be able to understand it.

Last week, though, I very warily picked up Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” to give it another try.

Apparently, brain cells do die because, if anything, it was a tougher read the second time through.

This work is described as “one of the most widely-sold but least-read books of our time.”

Now I truly know why.

Again, I enjoyed the testimonials on the dust cover. They gave the illusion that, if I really tried, I’d be able to understand the rest of the book. It was a wonderful illusion. This time, it lasted almost five pages.

Again, I knew I was finished when I got to the section labeled “Index.” Even I know that when you get there, you’re done.

What I actually finished reading were the words. They were good words. I’ve seen most of them before. I’ve even used quite a few myself. Not, however, in the same manner as Mr. Hawking.

“A particle of spin 0 is like a dot. On the other hand, a particle of spin 1 is like an arrow: it looks different from different directions. A particle of spin 2 is like a double-headed arrow: it looks the same if one turns it 180 degrees. There are some particles that do not look the same if one turns them through one revolution, you have to turn them through two.”

That was an easier passage. I only slogged through it four times before realizing I was never going to sort it out and just pushed on. Unfortunately, there are more sentences, paragraphs and entire chapters written in a similar vein.

“A Brief History of Time” is Mr. Hawking’s attempt to explain to the layman how the universe works.

Turns out the universe is a pretty complicated thing – like baseball’s infield-fly rule – and understanding it is no walk in the park. The “Big Bang” is an easy idea to digest. At the start of everything, there was this bodacious explosion.

For a lot of us (especially guys), anything that goes “Boom” will hold our interest. But then comes the hard part – how it all works. To make understanding “how it all works” easier, Mr. Hawking stayed away from mathematical equations. “Easier” is, of course, a relative term.

Stephen W. Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. That’s a pretty big deal. Isaac Newton once held the job. In other words, they don’t hand the position to just anyone. It helps to be smart.

Stephen Hawking is smart. He’s to smart what Mt. Everest is to the Appalachians. By comparison, I’m a mud flat at low tide. By the time I’d finished his book for the second time, I’d also formed the impression that my ears were much too far apart for the size of brain encased in my skull.

Put another way, I did as well understanding his theories as I would have: (a) trying to hit a Roger Clemens fastball; or (b) playing a $20 Nassau against Tiger Woods.

Because he suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Stephen Hawking can’t walk, can’t talk, and will likely die ahead of his time. But he can still think. And his thinking is lucid and incisive enough to let him see into the heart of the universe and devise theories on how it all works.

Even though I missed about 99 percent of what he was trying to say (the dust cover was the other 1 percent), I gained a new appreciation for the fact that there are those among us who overwhelmingly negate the Mike Tysons and Eminems of the race and give us a reason to add that “sapiens” to the “homo” part of the species description.

As for understanding the universe, I know the moon isn’t made of cheese. I know the Earth is a planet revolving around an average star in a galaxy that’s one of billions in space. I know that light travels pretty fast and there are things called atoms and electrons you really can’t see.

The rest will just have to wait until I’m ready for a third try. Maybe then all of that “spin 1 &2” stuff will come through a bit better.

I’m betting, though, that my ears will probably still feel as if they’re too far apart.

I’m OK with that.

I’ve lived with the feeling for some time now.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Comments can be sent to larrysim@att.net.

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