My Theory of Everything
Stephen Hawking certainly was right about one thing, even if he was wrong about others. "Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet," Hawking said. "And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at."
Sure, look up at the stars and dream and ponder and question and fantasize, maybe even theorize. Try to make sense of the universe, and one day you might be a great philosopher or a theoretical physicist or even...a rabbinic scholar. And even if this doesn't happen, at a minimum, you will join the ranks of most humans who, since the dawn of time, looked to the heavens trying to make sense of it all – an irresistible pastime that seems to be inherent in our collective DNA.
But is there room in the dreaming and stargazing for those who believe in both science and the divine, or are the two mutually exclusive, as today so many claim? Is there any leeway in Hawking's "brief history of time" for a fellow scientist committed equally to scientific inquiry and to G-d, or would such an individual be regarded with revulsion? Hawking's first wife, with whom he apparently re-established a close relationship in his later years, is supposedly a religious Christian. One would have to assume he had some degree of tolerance for his religiously devout wife of thirty years.
As for Hawking's pearl of wisdom that "there is always something you can do and succeed at," who can disagree with that?
The problem I have with this quote from Hawking – and I readily admit I haven't read all of his views on the subject – is with his comment about feet. Now, it's possible that a man who was confined to a wheelchair might have found that gawking at his feet all day was a fruitless enterprise. In some sense, directing curiosity to untangling the mysteries the universe was a perfect vocation for a brilliant mind bearing witness to a horrible disease wresting control from his body.
But if I were speaking to a room full of confused but eager high school students – most of whom will never achieve the intellectual magnificence of a Hawking – I might temper his comments a bit while instilling the requisite amount of inspiration for the next genius.
The strides we make in understanding the universe and the world around us do not always stem from contemplating the stars and dreaming – or, to be more precise, do not necessarily result from dreaming as a singular activity.
There are those who succeed by dreaming alone, those who succeed by doing, and those who succeed by a combination of both. And while knowledge and progress are the ultimate goals, we encounter failure with greater ease and frequency in any series of experiments or attempts to innovate than we do success. It is not uncommon for our desire to land the big one to turn into a quest for the great white whale – ever elusive to the point of our own downfall.
Young people need to understand this as they are pushed to pursue careers in STEM. There is an episode of The Big Bang Theory that illustrates this in a humorous but sad way. An older professor dies, and, while cleaning out his office, the gang finds a bottle of champagne with a note from his mother instructing that it be opened upon his first big discovery. Their curiosity takes on a life of its own when they find spiral notebooks filled with numbers, and they wonder whether this was incomplete but groundbreaking research – his first big discovery. Unable to decrypt the numbers, they visit the deceased professor's office mate, who is living alone in a run-down apartment. He bursts their bubble when he reveals that the books were calorie diaries the professor kept, believing that calorie restriction is the key to longevity. The dearly departed did not accomplish anything significant in his career, and when the boys ask about his office mate's accomplishments, he sarcastically remarks that yeah, sure, run-down apartments like his are what they give out as Nobel Prizes.
Maybe the fictitious professor would have fared better in the private sector or honing his skills as a teacher. Let's face it: there are times when dreaming gets you nowhere in life, and at some point, you will be forced to look at your feet and see where they can take you instead. Throughout the course of humanity, there have always been people who contributed to human knowledge and scientific inquiry not by pondering the imponderable, but by inventing something practical.
Sometimes, our feet will lead us down a successful, fruitful path. Sometimes, the practical can lead to the dream and even the answers. Sometimes, ignoring the questions on a daily basis can lead to the solutions. Sometimes staring too long at the stars and pondering comes at the cost of our happiness, our sense of fulfillment, and a meaningful life. Often we are left with a sense of weariness pondering the same unanswerable questions, making little headway with any quantifiable scientific progress.
Sometimes we get so involved with our dreams that we lose connections to our families. Master dreamer Stephen Hawking got divorced from his first wife, Jane, after thirty years of marriage. Hawking's resounding success in the wake of A Brief History of Time took such a toll on the family that she "felt that the family had been left behind."
It's quite possible that we might not ever get answers to certain questions about humanity and the universe – at least not that our puny organic brains can currently comprehend. It's quite possible that science can only take us so far. It's also possible that our thirst for knowledge can sow the seeds of our own destruction, as Stephen Vincent Benet wrote about in By the Waters of Babylon. We tend to focus on nuclear bombs and war as the means to our demise, but a DIY biohacker or artificial general intelligence just might do us in.
Sure, look up to the heavens and ponder, dream, fantasize, question, and theorize. If your passion is to wrestle with infinity, query your heart out – maybe someday you will discover something that expands our knowledge about the universe.
But don't be so quick to judge those scientists who are also believers or us lower life forms slithering around in the primordial goo, whose limited nervous systems can't fathom the unfathomable and are inclined to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Before you reflexively dismiss those who believe in a higher power, take a moment to reflect on the following:
Scientists, geniuses, theoretical physicists, and technologists often ask the rest of us to take their latest working theories on faith until they can be proven, many of which they ultimately abandon. And some of the greatest scientific minds ask that we take on faith their highly credible, earth-shattering theories that will change our understanding of everything until the time comes they are able to prove them. Humanity has invested untold sums in high-powered telescopes, space exploration, probes, and ROVERS; on Fermi Lab and the Hadron Collider smashing atoms in search of the tiniest of particles...all in an attempt to prove theories to which we cling based only on our faith.
Is having faith in scientific gospel at all different from having faith in G-d? Are labs and colliders designed to uncover knowledge about the universe truly different from our monasteries, seminaries, and houses of worship? Can't we have faith in both?
I do agree with Hawking that we should look to the heavens and dream because, if we can imagine it, it can happen – practically every tool, process, discovery, and piece of technology we have created started in our minds' eye.
But here is where I disagree with Hawking: don't forget to mind your feet, because your feet are what will carry you forth in life. Sometimes your feet will take you down a singular path and sometimes multiple paths. Sometimes your journey will be a straight, predictable trek, and other times it will be a circuitous mess, a maze in which the end is not apparent. Your feet will bring you accomplishments and failures that will define your life. And in the end, when you look back on your life, you will understand that it had to be the way it was to make you the person you will be when your time to leave this blessed Earth comes.
Focusing on the stars as a discrete pastime or career choice can indeed be rewarding, and a few just might have a profound impact on the world. But beware that fixating on the stars alone and ignoring your feet can keep you in a dream state for so long that you might actually lose time (and hope and love and family – which also define our humanity and place in the universe) as life passes you by.
My theory of everything is that it is all a balance. Look up to the heavens and dream, my children. But keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, ready to kick into gear when you need to travel to an alternate destiny.