Needless to say, I was very excited about the journey I was about to go on, and as I began to get to grips with the theories of these intellectual pioneers, I started to write down some of their incredible thoughts, to make sure I was getting it right:
I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
– Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize laureate for Physics in 1965
The Lord God is subtle, but he is not malicious.
– Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize laureate for Physics in 1921
No language which lends itself to visualizability can describe quantum jumps.
– Max Born, Nobel Prize laureate for Physics in 1954
Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.
– Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize laureate for Physics in 1922
I have second thoughts. Maybe God is malicious. – Albert Einstein Such statements, from the founding fathers of the field, would be enough to shake the belief of even the most confident of students. Still, alongside two hundred other young men and women from around the globe, I sat through mind-boggling lectures and passed what was at the time called the Part III Exam of the Mathematical Tripos, arguably the oldest maths exam in the world. It still consisted mostly of pure mathematics, and the amount of new material we learnt was so great that we had little time to really think about the philosophy of it all. And then came the plunge. Nine months after my arrival at Cambridge, Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous (and brilliant) physicists of our time, offered me the chance to become his PHD graduate student, to work on black holes and the origins of our universe. Deep thinking was about to become compulsory. So I spent the following summer having another look at everything I could find out about, well, everything – and I reached pretty much the point you’ve arrived at now in the book. With Hawking as a supervisor, I was about to put it all together and to reach much, much further. Now it’s your turn to do the same. What is there left to see? Well, here is a teaser. In 1979, a very special Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three theoretical scientists: Sheldon Lee Glashow from the US, Abdus Salam from Pakistan and Steven Weinberg from the US.
For years, scientists had been trying to understand some rather peculiar aspects of the weak nuclear force that you recently saw in action. And Glashow, Salam and Weinberg discovered something incredible: that electromagnetism and the weak force are but two aspects of another force, another field, that existed a long time ago. They found that during the early days of our universe, at least two of the invisible quantum seas that fill our reality were once just one, the so-called electroweak field.
This was an extraordinary breakthrough in its own right (hence the Nobel Prize), but it also paved the way for something much, much bugger: the tantalizing prospect of unifying all the known forces of nature into just one force (and therefore one theory).
The quest for such a unification lies behind everything you’ll experience between now and the end of this book.
With this goal in mind, you will travel towards the origin of space and time, within a black hole and even outside our universe.
In order to get there, however, you will first need to figure out what is left when one empties a place of everything it contains.