The sense of humanity’s genius arises repeatedly in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—not only because of the author’s own exhaustive knowledge of the universe’s inner workings, but also because of the vast array of scientists, philosophers, and even lay people whose inspired “eureka” moments have forever changed the way people perceive the world. The book ranges over millennia, covering the history of humanity’s developing comprehension of scientific principles and revealing our inner desire to understand everything. For each tiny physical phenomenon that we have stumbled across, such as the rising and setting of the sun, we have asked, “how and why?” This curiosity, the book ultimately suggests, is in a way what makes us human.
Hawking characterizes humans as perpetually inquisitive, always seeking to overcome any intellectual barrier, or even finding new ones on which to focus their curiosity. Despite the distractions of day-to-day life, humans continue to find themselves absorbed by larger questions. For example, Hawking recalls, “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.” He contrasts the everyday events of going to bed, family relationships, even the slow progress of time from a human perspective with the cosmological concept of black holes, which involves potential infinities of space and time. The human mind, he asserts, is naturally curious and restless.
This is in keeping with Hawking’s summation of the gradual development of classical scientific theory. He notes, “The [ancient] 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?” Without the use of any scientific equipment or theories, the ancient Greeks could apply logic to answer questions arising from their observations, uncovering wider truths beyond their current viewpoint.
Another example of human curiosity Hawking provides is of two American scientists— Penzias and Wilson—testing a new microwave detector. Upon finding more background noise than they’d expected, the men conducted multiple rounds of further tests over the course of years. Hawking writes, “Penzias and Wilson had unwittingly stumbled across a remarkably accurate confirmation of Friedmann’s first assumption [that the universe looks the same in every direction].” Although this discovery was not their intention, these two physicists’ natural curiosity lead them to follow up on an unsolved matter, and ultimately to prove a prior scientific theory. Their application of their discovery, a work of curiosity, illustrates a form of ingenuity particular to humans.
Such is humankind’s inquisitiveness that we even question how we came to be an intelligent species able to ask such questions in the first place. The anthropic principle, is a philosophical consideration that, in Hawking’s words, states: “The intelligent beings in [certain hospitable] regions should therefore not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence.” Basically, this means people shouldn’t be surprised that the current circumstances allow humans to exist, as we are already here. That this particular theory exists shows that humans’ curiosity knows no bounds—human curiosity even questions human curiosity’s existence.
As Hawking repeatedly states, there are many questions that remain unanswered, and all the theories about the nature of life and the universe so far are just that—theories. As such, human ingenuity will continue to seek out and identify new problems to solve. Humans will continue to ask questions until everything is known: “our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.” While Hawking’s words refer directly the scientists’ search for a unifying theory of everything, he asserts that this quest is a fundamental desire of the human condition.
This search is also just one step in a long quest for yet deeper understanding. “Even once all the scientific answers are found,” Hawking says, the next step will be to “take part in the discussion […] of 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.” In other words, once humanity knows the how, we can move on to the why—and once we know that, and all questions are answered, we will transcend our current existence. Hawking shows that to be human is to ask how and why. Such curiosity breeds ingenuity, as humankind cannot rest until all the answers to their questions are found. Hawking goes as far as to suggest that once there are no more questions left to seek, we will somehow be more than human, although it will be an entirely human “triumph” to achieve such a feat.
Human Curiosity and Ingenuity ThemeTracker
Human Curiosity and Ingenuity Quotes in A Brief History of Time
“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.
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.
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.
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.