“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”
Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?
The Greeks even had a third argument that the earth must be round, for why else does one first see the sails of a ship coming over the horizon, and only later see the hull?
Aristotle thought the earth was stationary and that the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars moved in circular orbits about the earth. He believed this because he felt, for mystical reasons, that the earth was the center of the universe, and that circular motion was the most perfect.
As far as Kepler was concerned, elliptical orbits were merely an ad hoc hypothesis, and a rather repugnant one at that, because ellipses were clearly less perfect than circles. […] he could not reconcile them with his idea that the planets were made to orbit the sun by magnetic forces.
It is an interesting reflection on the general climate of thought before the twentieth century that no one had suggested that the universe was expanding or contracting. [...] this may have been due to people’s tendency to believe in eternal truths, as well as the comfort they found in the thought that even though they may grow old and die, the universe is eternal and unchanging.
The Aristotelian tradition also held that one could work out all the laws that govern the universe by pure thought: it was not necessary to check by observation. So no one until Galileo bothered to see whether bodies of different weight did in fact fall at different speeds.
Newton was very worried by this lack of absolute position, or absolute space, as it was called, because it did not accord with his idea of an absolute God. In fact, he refused to accept lack of absolute space, even though it was implied by his laws.
Our sun is just an ordinary, average-sized, yellow star, near the inner edge of one of the spiral arms [of a galaxy that is 100,000 light-years across]. We have certainly come a long way since Aristotle and Ptolemy, when we thought that the earth was the center of the universe!
Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention. (The Catholic Church, on the other hand, seized on the big bang model and in 1951 officially pronounced it to be in accordance with the Bible.)
The success of scientific theories […] led the French scientist the Marquis de Laplace […] to argue that the universe was completely deterministic. Laplace suggested that there should be a set of scientific laws that would allow us to predict everything that would happen in the universe.
We now know that neither the atoms nor the protons and neutrons within them are indivisible. So the question is: what are the truly elementary particles, the basic building blocks from which everything is made?
The hostility of other scientists, particularly Eddington, his former teacher and the leading authority on the structure of stars, persuaded Chandrasekhar to abandon this line of work […] However, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983, it was […] for his early work on the limiting mass of cold stars.
[…] one evening in November that year, shortly after the birth of my daughter, Lucy, I started to think about black holes as I was getting into bed. My disability makes this rather a slow process, so I had plenty of time.
The Catholic Church had made a bad mistake with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science, declaring that the sun went round the earth. Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on cosmology.
The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner […] they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. […] There ought to be some principle that picks out […] one model, to represent our universe.
Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty.
Must we turn to the anthropic principle for an explanation? Was it all just a lucky chance? That would seem a counsel of despair, a negation of all our hopes of understanding the underlying order of the universe.
We don’t yet have a complete and consistent theory that combines quantum mechanics and gravity. However, we are fairly certain of some features that such a unified theory should have.
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
The progress of the human race in understanding the universe has established a small corner of order in an increasingly disordered universe.
A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence.
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? […] Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?
[…] if we do discover a complete theory […] Then we shall all […] be able to [discuss] why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.