Stephen Hawking experiences zero gravityIn May 1995, Peter Lennon in the Guardian upbraided six scientists and authors for letting down the atheist cause. In an article facing a full-page blow-up of one of William Blake’s representations of God, Lennon called this group “Science’s New God Squad”. One of the accused was, of all people, Stephen Hawking. Granted, CS Lewis warned years ago that a young man wishing to remain an atheist can’t be too careful of his reading. But must he, or she, steer clear of A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design?

Hawking requires little introduction. In books, lectures and documentaries, he has tried to make his science understandable to what he calls “ordinary people”. “Ordinary people” have made him a world-wide celebrity. Science popularising – some remarkably good – isn’t rare among his colleagues, but few present their science with such a spirit of fun and adventure as he. In spite of devastating disability, his life and his scientific journey are, for him, nothing less than a ripping yarn. His earlier work on singularities and discovery of Hawking radiation placed him in the forefront of theoretical physics. His later more speculative proposals, not yet accepted on the same level, still unfailingly stir up considerable reaction and activity.

Hawking is fearless about stepping on (or running over) toes, ready to say, “You’re wrong” to just about anyone and admit when he’s been wrong himself, eager for his lay public to recognise that good science demands this honesty and flexibility. But reversals like that led Lennon to call the “God Squad” “shifty as priests”.

Hawking’s “shiftiness” takes the form of pulling the rug out from under his own discoveries and assertions and, in the process, out from under anyone’s philosophical or religious conclusions based on them. In his doctoral dissertation in the 1960s he showed that the universe began as a singularity where the laws of physics and hopes of predictability and a scientific explanation break down. However, in the 1980s, bringing in reinforcements from quantum theory to battle that singularity, he with physicist Jim Hartle proposed that in “imaginary time” (where the time dimension becomes a fourth space dimension) chronological time is a meaningless concept, the singularity is smeared away, the universe has no beginning and the Creator is out of a job. Meanwhile, Hawking showed that the area of a black hole’s event horizon can never grow smaller. Then, with “Hawking radiation”, it could. In 1981, having declared repeatedly that everything that happens, has happened or will happen is determined “either by God or a Theory of Everything”, it occurred to him that when a black hole grows smaller and eventually disappears, information trapped inside it is lost, irretrievably, from the universe. Such information loss undermines scientific determinism. In 2004, Hawking proposed a solution that he believes removes the problem and scientific determinism is back on its plinth in his book The Grand Design. In even more of an about-face, Hawking now suspects that a fundamental theory of the universe, something he has spent his life pursuing, will never be found. We can know several approximations to the final underlying theory, never that theory itself.

Hawking insists such “about-faces” are not reversals. One of the marvels of science is that it is an ongoing, continuously self-correcting process. No one is being “shifty”.

Might he ever make that most enormous about-face and say the God he has battled in print for much of his life actually does exist? Peter Lennon probably needn’t worry, for according to Hawking’s own philosophy, and, in spite of his derogation of philosophy, he does have one, we can never know that level of “reality”. “We never have a model-independent view of reality. But that doesn’t mean there is no model-independent reality. If I didn’t think there is, I could not continue to do science.” Hawking doubts that “reality” includes God, but the lack of a sure road to independent reality works both ways and Hawking’s questions tread the borderline of human knowledge. In spite of a promise of ultimate answers on the cover of The Grand Design, he hasn’t stopped asking those questions. Ultimate truth has not been captured. He calls himself a child “who has never grown up”. Anything is possible.

Kitty Ferguson’s biography Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work is published by Bantam Press