John Oliver meets Stephen Hawking

“You do realize that typing a response is difficult for me, correct?” Stephen Hawking


It is hard to find people who dislike John Oliver. He is popular in both, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. His recent video trashing the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”) went viral and most people used it unanimously to “create” an opinion regarding the World Cup. As a comedian he is hilarious but, should he be allowed to interview Professor Stephen Hawking, probably the smartest man on the planet? To me the answer is “hell yeah” not because Oliver can ask interesting questions (actually in this case he could not) but because it will get more people curious or interested in Hawking’s job.


Most of the questions asked were rubbish but at one point Oliver asked an interesting one: “if there is one thing you want people to understand about your work, bearing in mind that most people will never understand anything about your work, what would that thing be?” Hawking replied: “imaginary time”.


So, what is imaginary time?


Imaginary time is time measured using imaginary numbers. It is a well-defined mathematical concept. According to Hawking, if we take any ordinary (or “real”) number and multiply it by itself, the result is a positive number. (For example, 2 times 2 is 4 but so is -2 times -2.) There are, however, special numbers (called imaginary numbers) that give negative numbers when multiplied by themselves. (The one called i, when multiplied by itself, gives -1, 2i multiplied by itself gives -4, and so on).


One can picture real and imaginary numbers in the following way: The real numbers can be represented by a line going from left to right, with zero in the middle, negative numbers like -1, -2 etcetera on the left, and positive numbers, 1, 2, etcetera on the right. Then imaginary numbers are represented by a line going up and down the page, with i, 2i, etcetera above the middle, and –i, -2i etcetera below. Thus imaginary numbers are in a sense numbers at right angles to ordinary real numbers.


When it comes to singularities[1] and explaining the origin of the universe, some theories might suggest that the so-called imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations.


In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space time and at which the laws of science break down.

In imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.


So, now you know! Or your curiosity on the matter has been increased.


June 30th, 2014.

Source: Hawking Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.




[1] Singularity is a point in space-time at which the space-time curvature becomes infinite.

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