Though human beings have always sought to understand the universe, Stephen Hawking argues in A Brief History of Time, people can also refuse to change their previous assumptions when faced with new proposals. Whether from pride, stubbornness, or dogmatic belief, even the most intelligent people have found themselves on the wrong side of scientific history, obstinately dismissing new ideas because they are intellectually, spiritually, or existentially challenging. Hawking shows that curiosity and obstinacy battle within every person—himself included. What is important is to remain objective throughout scientific inquiry, he argues, and to seek only the truth; otherwise one risks falling behind the inevitable tide of humankind’s progress.
Despite establishing humanity’s innate curiosity, Hawking also makes clear that people can find it difficult to accept new ideas that contradict earlier, accepted notions. For example, after Johannes Kepler discovered that the planets’ orbits around the sun were elongated, he considered his finding as “merely an ad hoc hypothesis, and a rather repugnant one at that, because ellipses were clearly less perfect than circles.” While his new suggestion worked well according to observations, it did not fit with his idea that magnetic forces caused the orbits. Hawking mocks Kepler’s determination to force his preconceived notions of how the universe to fit together, despite the fact they contradicted measurable events. His ironic tone reveals Hawking does not consider such an approach as scientific.
However, Hawking admits he himself has fallen victim to such stubbornness. He opposed research student Jacob Bekenstein’s suggestion that a black hole’s event horizon could be used to measure its entropy. Later, when finding, to his “surprise and annoyance,” his own calculations would support Bekenstein’s hypothesis, Hawking didn’t want the student to hear about it, simply because he did not like the new idea. Of course, Hawking’s respect for scientific inquiry pushed him to finally accept Bekenstein’s suggestion. He uses this example to illustrate how even the best and brightest can be guilty of subjective prejudice, revealing stubbornness as an instinctive human reaction at odds with an intellectual approach.
Other scientists in A Brief History of Time similarly push back on evidence that contradicts their deeply-held assumptions about the nature of the universe, and it is only by letting go of any assumptions that progress can be made. Einstein, for instance, arrived at his theory of relatively after dismissing the widely-held notion that time is absolute. Yet he made what he considered the biggest error of his career by introducing the idea of a sort of anti-gravity cosmological constant into his calculations that would keep the presumed static universe from collapsing in on itself. Later discoveries revealed the universe to be expanding, however—meaning there was no need for the cosmological constant at all.
Though there is an inner tension between humans’ rational intelligence and instinctive obstinacy, Hawking thus argues that the overwhelming tide of human ingenuity and inquisitiveness will inevitably push closer to the truth. What’s more, Hawking shows that those who fail to catch on to the latest trends in science fall behind: “The Catholic Church had made a bad mistake with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science,” he writes when discussing his attendance at a 1981 conference at the Vatican. “Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on cosmology.” This suggests, at least initially, that the Church understood that clinging rigidly onto previous theories would not thwart tide of intellectual progress, no matter how influential the group or person might be. Yet despite the apparent fear of falling behind, the Pope still asserted after the conference that the scientists should not “inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.” While Hawking offers no personal comment on the matter, from the overwhelming thrust of the book’s focus on scientific progress coming ever-closer toward the unifying truths, it seems the Pope’s hope cannot be fulfilled; one cannot succeed in restraining human curiosity, and obstinance in the face of scientific discovery may lead to irrelevance.
Hawking thus illustrates both the inspired and unreasonable forces at work in the human struggle to understand everything. Both curiosity and obstinacy are natural reactions within the human mind. But, he shows, humans will continue to seek out answers to the big questions, no matter the obstacles in their way—meaning the best course of action is to let go of preconceived notions and get onboard.
The Danger of Stubbornness ThemeTracker
The Danger of Stubbornness 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?
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 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.
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.