Happy 70th Birthday, Stephen Hawking.

Photograph by Graham Turner, 1994
Happy 70th birthday, Dr. Hawking! 1/8/1942

“I think computer viruses should count as life … I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” Stephen Hawking, at a speech at Macworld Expo in Boston, 1994.

Carl Sagan


“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

chapter 9

Suppose, however, that God decided that the universe should finish up in a state of high order but that it didn’t matter what state it started in. At early times the universe would probably be in a disordered state. This would mean that disorder would decrease with time. You would see broken cups gathering themselves together and jumping back onto the table. However, any human beings who were observing the cups would be living in a universe in which disorder decreased with time. I shall argue that such beings would have a psychological arrow of time that was backward. That is, they would remember events in the future, and not remember events in their past. When the cup was broken, they would remember it being on the table, but when it was on the table, they would not remember it being on the floor.

It is rather difficult to talk about human memory because we don’t know how the brain works in detail. We do, however, know all about how computer memories work. I shall therefore discuss the psychological arrow of time for computers. I think it is reasonable to assume that the arrow for computers is the same as that for humans. If it were not, one could make a killing on the stock exchange by having a computer that would remember tomorrow’s prices! A computer memory is basically a device containing elements that can exist in either of two states. A simple example is an abacus. In its simplest form, this consists of a number of wires; on each wire there are a number of beads that can be put in one of two positions. Before an item is recorded in a computer’s memory, the memory is in a disordered state, with equal probabilities for the two possible states. (The abacus beads are scattered randomly on the wires of the abacus.) After the memory interacts with the system to be remembered, it will definitely be in one state or the other, according to the state of the system. (Each abacus bead will be at either the left or the right of the abacus wire.) So the memory has passed from a disordered state to an ordered one. However, in order to make sure that the memory is in the right state, it is necessary to use a certain amount of energy (to move the bead or to power the computer, for example). This energy is dissipated as heat, and increases the amount of disorder in the universe. One can show that this increase in disorder is always greater than the increase in the order of the memory itself. Thus the heat expelled by the computer’s cooling fan means that when a computer records an item in memory, the total amount of disorder in the universe still goes up. The direction of time in which a computer remembers the past is the same as that in which disorder increases.


But what would happen if and when the universe stopped expanding and began to contract? Would the thermodynamic arrow reverse and disorder begin to decrease with time? This would lead to all sorts of science-fiction-like possibilities for people who survived from the expanding to the contracting phase. Would they see broken cups gathering themselves together off the floor and jumping back onto the table? Would they be able to remember tomorrow’s prices and make a fortune on the stock market? It might seem a bit academic to worry about what will happen when the universe collapses again, as it will not start to contract for at least another ten thousand million years. But there is a quicker way to find out what will happen: jump into a black hole. The collapse of a star to form a black hole is rather like the later stages of the collapse of the whole universe. So if disorder were to decrease in the contracting phase of the universe, one might also expect it to decrease inside a black hole. So perhaps an astronaut who fell into a black hole would be able to make money at roulette by remembering where the ball went before he placed his bet. (Unfortunately, however, he would not have long to play before he was turned to spaghetti. Nor would he be able to let us know about the reversal of the thermodynamic arrow, or even bank his winnings, because he would be trapped behind the event horizon of the black hole.)

At first, I believed that disorder would decrease when the universe recollapsed. This was because I thought that the universe had to return to a smooth and ordered state when it became small again. This would mean that
the contracting phase would be like the time reverse of the expanding phase. People in the contracting phase would live their lives backward: they would die before they were born and get younger as the universe contracted.

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking