Brief Answers to the Big Questions
by Stephen Hawking
‘When we see the earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole …. with a compelling message; one planet, one human race.’
Stephen Hawking’s final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, makes a few optimistic predictions. It also hands out some chilling warnings.
With a foreword by Eddie Redmayne*, an introduction by Kip Thorne and an afterword by Lucy Hawking, the book contains little new material. It is mostly a summary of the work Hawking did throughout his career, especially that concerned with black holes and the origin of the universe. Presented succinctly in Hawking’s unique style with touches of dry humour, it tackles (as the title suggests) what he considers to be the most important questions facing science – and the human species – in the next centuries.
The first question, Is There A God? isn’t about religion. Rather, it is a matter of arguing that the universe as we now understand it does not need one. In Question 2, How Did It All Begin, Hawking develops the discussion to include the idea of multiple histories, M-theory, the Anthropic Principle, and possible futures.
‘…. I am sure that during this century people will discover how to modify both intelligence and instincts like aggression.’
Chapters (and Questions) 3, 6, 8 and 9 will be the delight of sci-fi enthusiasts as they explore the cosmologist’s viewpoint on (respectively) alien intelligences, time travel, getting to the stars and the future of AI. Hawking firmly believed that colonising space should be one of the priorities for the human race. Black holes are discussed in Chapter 5.
Brief Answers makes several predictions, including some which will be unwelcome to presidents and prime ministers who feel they know better. None is more chilling than the probable catastrophe which will result from runaway global warming. That appears in Chapter 7, Will We Survive On Earth? – while a quantum mechanical approach to predicting the future is the subject of Chapter 4. The book concludes with another look at the future and how we might shape it.
‘A more immediate danger is runaway climate change. A rise in ocean temperature would melt the icecaps and cause the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide. Both effects could make our climate like that of Venus, but with a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius.’
The answers here, to the big scientific questions of today, are indeed brief. Readers who are interested in exploring the topics in greater detail should immerse themselves in Hawking’s other books, such as A Brief History of Time, or The Universe in a Nutshell. However, Brief Answers to the Big Questions gives a useful and easily comprehensible summary of those works, and a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest scientists of the past fifty years.
I recommend it to scientists and non-scientists alike; I would especially recommend it to politicians who would unthinkingly place sovereignty and empire building above the future of the planet!
‘Our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins.’
Note * – who plays Stephen Hawking in the movie The Theory of Everything