taking joy in human unreason

A Rhetorical Analysis of Stephen Hawking’s “Black Holes and Baby Universes”

Table of Contents

  1. Body
  2. Works Consulted

Back to the Academic Essays.


In “Black Holes and Baby Universes”, Stephen Hawking introduces the concept of “baby universes”. These are self-contained universes that branch off from our region of the universe. Objects that fall into black holes would enter baby universes, only to emerge a steady stream of particles from another black hole of the same mass. “Black Holes and Baby Universes” was originally a lecture given at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988. Hawking uses the particular analogy of space travel, combined with the effect of his diction, to draw in listeners and readers and to emphasize the often highly theoretical nature of science and its relation to science fiction.

Hawking’s continued reference to the effects of black holes and baby universes on futuristic space travel serves to make the subject matter much more accessible to non-astrophysicists.

This sounds like just what is required to allow space travel though black holes. You just steer your spaceship into a suitable black hole. […] You would then hope to reappear out of some other hole, though you wouldn’t be able to choose where. (121)

This paragraph primarily serves to simplify ideas such as, “This baby universe may join on again, [appearing] to us to be another black hole that formed and then evaporated. Particles that fell into one black hole would appear as particles emitted by the other black hole” (121). To make the jump of logic from rejoining baby universes and a “black hole
that formed and evaporated” (121) to the emitting of particles from neighboring black holes could be difficult for readers to make automatically on anything other than faith, as there are details missing in Hawking’s explanation, as is necessary in a non-technical essay. It would be unreasonable for Hawking to launch into mathematical details that demonstrate precisely how likely it is for a baby universe to form and reconnect as a neighboring black hole of equal mass, were he even to have such numbers. This issue with the missed details is particularly relevant in the original context of the essay, that of a lecture, in which Hawking must keep the attention span of the audience by ensuring that they understand the basic concepts each step of the way, while not bogging them down with mathematics. Yet, by keeping with his analogy, he not only keeps the reader from becoming hopelessly confused with trying to untangle the possibility of his “technical” explanation being true, but effectively glosses over the missing information in his explanation by distracting the audience.

As seen in the example of the analogy above, Hawking also keeps the tone of the essay light, again serving to keep the audience interested, but with the added effect of being much more convincing. Had Hawking preached to his audience on how his theories are correct and everyone else’s are wrong, he would have alienated much of his audience. By leaving that idea quietly implicit in the presentation of his ideas in a popular lecture, which is certainly more likely to affect the beliefs of the public than a closed audience of astrophysicists, Hawking loses no followers and does not create an image of a scientist desperate to get his ideas out and heard. Whether he is or not is more likely to be a matter of discussion within the scientific community than the public-at-large.

Couching his jokes in familiar, science fiction terms serves to lightly and humorously play upon stereotypes of people who would attend an astrophysics lecture or read a popularized astrophysics essay. When relating more technical information, as shown in the example above concerning the rejoining of baby universes with our own, he does not bore the reader with technical terms or mathematics that would be above the level of a high school graduate or college undergraduate student, and he rather quickly returns to the popular analogy of the space traveler. Even his “technical” term of a “baby universe” does not strike the reader as being overly scientific, and, thus as not being scary. In fact, some might find the term silly, further serving to draw the reader in by leaving them curious as to how the usage of the term will be justified scientifically, or as “scientific” as the essay becomes.

Hawking’s use of the space travel analogy also demonstrates the link he sees between astrophysics and science fiction. He is quite aware, as are his readers and listeners, of the fact that much of popular science fiction takes basic physics ideas and stretches them, often to the breaking point, for the sake of entertainment or exploring possible futures of humanity. Despite the tenuousness of the link between current, existing astrophysics theories and the extremes they are carried to in science fiction, there is an important link in Hawking’s mind. His presentation of the space traveler analogy is not to disregard the idea as frivolous and ridiculous to even consider, but almost to suggest methods of keeping science fiction within our current realm of “realistic” ideas about the universe, while still being entertaining. “You just steer your spaceship into a suitable black hole. It had better be a pretty big one, though, or the gravitational forces will tear you into spaghetti before you get inside” (121) and “In real time, an astronaut who fell into a black hole would come to a sticky end. He would be torn apart by the difference between the gravitation force on his head and his feet. Even the particles that made up his body would not survive” (121-2) prove this: his suggested “modifications” would almost make funny science fiction short stories themselves!

While reinforcing the fun nature of the connection between science fiction and the reality of astrophysics, however, Hawking subtly emphasizes both the distance between the two and the closeness of the two. It is truly unknown if Hawking’s ideas will have any real bearing on future space travel. Nothing about his astrophysical theories are testable in a personal sense (as in, via space travel) with our current level of technology, and will most likely not be for quite some time. Thus, anything in science fiction that bases itself on his theories and ideas is speculative at best; this is not particularly surprising, as that tends to be the nature of science fiction. What is interesting, however, is the idea that while astrophysics is a science founded on observation and mathematics, Hawking, in his manner of delivery, makes it seem almost as subjective as science fiction in some aspects, thus bringing the two fields closer together in the minds of his readers and listeners. “In 1973 I started investigating what difference the uncertainty principle would make to black holes. To my great surprise and that of everyone else, I found it meant that black holes are not completely black” (120). Here, Hawking makes the discovery of the emission of radiation by black holes seem like something less than the scientific method and more like intuition; to Hawking, science is not merely an objective exercise in the Scientific Method, but something that can surprise and startle. This is further evidenced by Hawking’s rather sociable tone and diction–the subjects of science fiction (and space travel) and astrophysics are both fascinating and interesting to Hawking. “What all this means is that going through a black hole is unlikely to prove a popular and reliable method of space travel. First of all, you would have to get there by traveling in imaginary time […]. Second, you couldn’t really choose your destination” (122).

Hawking’s use of a particular, popular analogy and a light, sociable tone serve to keep his audience interested in his subject matter to express his feelings on the nature of his particular branch of science. Hawking has once again managed a “successful” essay–easy for the non-astrophysicist to understand at a basic level, successful in getting his ideas propagated to those even remotely interested in astrophysics, and highly theoretical and experimentally unproven in subject matter.

Word Count: 1317

Works Consulted

Hawking, Stephen. “Black Holes and Baby Universes”. Black Holes and Baby Universes. New York: Bantam Books, 1993. 115-125.

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