At some point in our life, some of us at least ask the questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I go from here, after I die? Most people probably pick up a semblance of answers from the religions they follow, with fear of hell or thrilling expectation of heaven occupying prominent places in such schemes. Be that as it may, there are some serious thinkers who use their brains and the expanding horizons of knowledge to provide us with more plausible answers than religious fictions offer.
One of them is the famous 71-year-old physicist Stephen Hawking, who spoke at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California last month. He shared his views on a wide range of topics during his speech, from the past and future of astrophysics to the existence of God.
As to who are we, he said that we human beings ‘are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature.’ These particles are the atoms that make us up, and they are in turn made up of subatomic particles such as electrons, neutrons, protons and so on, the latest that has been discovered being the Higgs particle which is what gives mass to matter. In other words, from a physics perspective, without the Higgs particle there is no such thing as the universe even, not to speak of us humans to ask such silly questions!
For most of us, bottomline is that we come from our parents, from Mother’s womb. And as the saying goes, we are what we eat. And what we eat comes from the earth: the minerals and the water. Plus of course the air that we need to breathe to transform these into the energy that powers us, with the sun’s heat thrown in, as well as the space in which we evolve. Neat and tidy, aren’t we, chunks of contoured flesh covered by wrinkly skin.
Oh yes, and we have a mind too, to all intents and purposes different from the body that it twists and turns. Currently there is a huge lot of research going on to unravel the what, how and why of the mind, and the mind-body connection. All very fascinating. As far as we know we only live this life, heaven and hell no one has seen or has sent reports from so far. In a scientific spirit we have to add this caveat ‘so far’, one never knows…
However, a new perspective emerging is that known as ‘parallel universes’. A special report of the well-known science publication Scientific American devoted to the subject was most interesting and informative. ‘Is there a copy of you reading this article?’ it started, continuing with: ‘A person who is not you but who lives on a planet called Earth, with misty mountains, fertile fields, and sprawling cities, in a solar system with eight other planets? The life of this person has been identical to your in every respect. But perhaps he or she now decides to put down this article without finishing it, while you read on.’
Sounds spooky? There’s more: ‘The idea of such an alter ego seems strange and implausible, but it looks as if we will just have to live with it, because it is supported by astronomical observations.’ The same kind of observations that allow scientists to send a vessel to planet Mars with such accuracy, or to position the Hubble telescope far, far out in space to take and send us such jaw-dropping pictures of the skies beyond the limits of vision from here on Earth. According to these observations, ‘you have a twin in a galaxy… whose distance is so large that it is beyond astronomical.’ Further, ‘There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every possible permutation of your life choices.’
Wow, another you watching you from a distance? But don’t worry, for ‘you will probably never see your other selves.’ So, kind of, you can do all the silly things you wish to, for you are not likely to look silly to yourself…
In that talk, Hawking asked: ‘What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?’ Those who have a preferred answer, feel free. It may be noted that Hawking is wheelchair-bound and naturally speechless due to a life-long battle with a disease of the nervous system known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or also known as Lou Gehrig´s disease, which rendered his whole body paralysed. But he still manages to joke and to be optimistic about the capacity of scientific research to provide answers to life’s fundamental questions.
And someday, surely, the answers will be clearer, more plausible and more widely acceptable to everyone.
* Published in print edition on 2 August 2013