WEB: Stephen Hawking's Universe

Stephen Hawking's Universe

Pop cosmology as designed by Stephen Hawking and his crack marketers offers a power-punch combination of salves for the weary postmodern mind: scientific hypotheses and "facts" with such grandiose implications and near-hallucinatory logic as to produce a quasi-religious awe. It may be a godless universe, but if Hawking is right, it's such an impossibly beautiful one that its lack of apparent purpose seems almost beside the point.

PBS has a Web site devoted to the series Stephen Hawking's Universe, and it's an easy, colorful way to familiarize oneself with the basics of contemporary physics as applied to the study of the universe--which is itself a contested notion. This is cosmology for dummies, in plainspoken English, with simplistic explanations of such phenomena as the "space-time fabric," "singularities," the big bang and the big crunch, gravity, the different types of possible universes, and, of course, black holes, Hawking's pet phenom.

The language is deliciously hyperbolic at times: "The big bang marks the instant at which the universe began, when time and space came into existence..." "A singularity [the core of a black hole] marks a point where the curvature of space-time is infinite, or, in other words, it possesses zero volume and infinite density." A section on "Unsolved Mysteries" offers a taste of the evidence behind such unproven theories as alien life and time travel, and brief biographies on important physicists and astronomers are also provided. Cute, USA Today-style graphics illustrate various laws and theories: Here, the birth of a black hole looks kind of like a rubber ball sinking below the surface of a bath and disappearing down the drain.

In a sense, this site is a model for the Internet as a whole, or even Hawking's vision of the ever-expanding universe: It's infinitely broad but somewhat thin. To use another metaphor, it's like the most dangerous kind of lover: the kind that appears to give a lot, but could actually give even more, and lets you know it.

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