Reflections on Key Books

Reflections on Key Books

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The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. Cambridge University Press, 1973; paperback edition 1974; reprinted 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1986. By Stephen Hawking and George F. R. Ellis. This was written at a strategic time in the development of General Relativity Theory, summarising the new causal and topological methods and discoveries made between 1965 and 1973 by Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and collaborators. It includes their famous singularity theorems for classical relativity theory, and some important theorems on the nature of black holes. It became a standard reference work on the subject, and still sells steadily today. Because of its abbreviated presentation of difficult topics, students often referred to it as the Yellow Peril.

The Squatter Problem in the Western Cape. South African Institute of Race Relations, Johannesburg, 1977. By George F. R. Ellis, D. Hendrie, A. Kooy, and J. Maree. A book summarising the plight of homeless people in the Western Cape under the Apartheid regime, pleading for their rights and for a new policy to offer them a hopeful future at a time when they were under intense pressure by the Nationalist government. A factually based advocacy document that may have been helpful in changing policy.

Low Income Housing Policy in South Africa. Urban Problems Research Unit, University of Cape Town, 1979. By George F. R. Ellis and D. Dewar. A comprehensive analysis of what policy would transform the desperate housing situation of the coloured and black people in Cape Town at that time. The book achieved the distinction of being denounced in Parliament by the Government minister responsible for housing policy at that time; however it was influential in the development of a renewed national housing policy some years later.

Flat and Curved Space Times. Oxford University Press, 1988; reprinted 1989, 1990, 1992, 1994; 2nd Edition 2000. By George F. R. Ellis and Ruth M. Williams. A didactic book presenting the essence of special and general relativity theory in as simple and comprehensive a way as possible, while using only algebra rather than calculus in the presentation. Splendidly illustrated with many explanatory diagrams by my colleague Mauro Carfora. Popular enough to lead to a revised and updated second edition.

Before the Beginning. Bowerdean Press/Marion Boyers, London, 1993. By George F. R. Ellis. A semi-popular introductory book on modern science and cosmology, stressing the limits of science, the relation of humanity to the universe, and the various possible metaphysical foundations for cosmology. Considers possibility of a religious understanding of the existence of the cosmos, and emphasises the significance of self-sacrificial (kenotic) ethics. Not that widely distributed, but has some very devoted fans.

The Renaissance of General Relativity and Cosmology: A survey meeting to celebrate the 65th Birthday of Dennis Sciama. University Press, Cambridge, 1993. Edited by George F. R. Ellis, A. Lanza, and J. Miller. A festschrift for my research supervisor Dennis Sciama, with technical papers on relativity and cosmology by many of his distinguished ex-students, including Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees (the present Astronomer Royal). This is the edited proceedings of a meeting held in Dennis’ honour in Trieste, where he was director of the Astrophysics Sector of SISSA (the International School of Advanced Studies) where I was based for some years.

Science Research Policy in South Africa: A Discussion Document for the Royal Society of South Africa. Royal Society of South Africa, Cape Town, 1994. By George F. R. Ellis. A comprehensive review of science research policy possibilities for South Africa. Very strategically timed: appeared in the first weeks of the Mandela Government’s rule and was the basis of some useful workshops on the topic. Became influential in the formulation of the country’s new science policy, influencing aspects of the governmental Green Paper that led to the official White Paper on science policy and subsequent legislation.

On The Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996. By Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis. Relates the science and religion debate to ethics, making a detailed proposal for a realist kenotic ethics based on an underlying purpose or telos in the universe. Includes a useful summary of cosmology and of the scientific understanding of the hierarchical structure of complex systems, and an analysis of the ethical suppositions underlying the social sciences. Strongly supports the theme that the deep nature of ethics is kenotic, incorporating the ideas of letting go or giving up on behalf of others. Made philosophically and theologically kosher by my talented colleague Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theology Seminary.

The dynamical systems approach to cosmology. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Edited by John Wainwright and George F. R. Ellis. Arising out of a workshop held in Cape Town in 1995, gives a systematic presentation of the way that dynamical systems theory can lead to an understanding of the evolution of anisotropic cosmological models. By identifying attractors, sources, sinks, and saddle points in the space of cosmological models, this enables one to see at a glance how different families of such models evolve in relation to each other, and so clarifies what are special and what are generic possibilities at very early and very late times. Led to a resurgence of interest in this topic, which is flourishing at the present time.

Is The Universe Open or Closed? The Density of Matter in the Universe. Cambridge Lecture Notes in Physics, No.7, Cambridge University Press, 1997. By Peter Coles and George F. R. Ellis. A comprehensive analysis of all evidence at that time regarding the average density of matter in the universe, which is crucial in determining its past and future evolution. We suggested a density about one third of the critical density, at a time when many thought the true value was equal to the critical density. Later measurements concur with what we proposed at that time; however they also suggest a non-zero cosmological constant (‘dark energy’), which we did not suggest then.

The Far-Future Universe. Templeton Foundation Press, 2002. Edited by George F. R. Ellis. Proceedings of a symposium on eschatology held at the Pontifical Academy. Considers what will happen in the far future as regards both the universe and humanity. Its distinguished authors look at cosmological, biological, human, and theological aspects of this issue. Discusses the tension between hope and rationality in this context.

The Universe Around Us: an Integrative View of Science and Cosmology (2002). By George F. R. Ellis. An electronic (web based) book presenting a comprehensive view of the natural and life sciences, and how they differ from each other. May one day migrate to a printed version.

Links to fuller descriptions of these books, and copies of some of my papers on a range of topics, are available from my University of Cape Town webpage at