In recent times, there hasn’t been a bigger name in all of science than Stephen Hawking — especially for the audience outside the realm of science. This is owing, in large part, to A Brief History of Time published three decades ago, which went on to become a milestone in that very history of time for an entire generation of human population that has wanted to know a bit more about the universe, without any of the technical jargon that makes one leap towards ignorance instead.
Within that aforementioned realm, nonetheless, Hawking remains a messiah that has shown the path to scores, leaving an indelible mark on science before departing earlier this year into a dimension of which even a mind as extraordinary as his couldn’t provide many answers to — brief or otherwise.
Brief Answers to the Big Questions is a posthumous collection of Hawking’s essays and speeches, which in many ways provides a synopsis of some of his greatest ideas that reached the world outside his scientific dimension. It is a short list of the ten most frequently asked questions if you will, and Hawking’s attempt to answer them to the best of what was an unparalleled ability.
However, before Hawking digs into those 10 questions, each of which forms a chapter in Brief Answers, he begins with arguably the most important question of them all: why should we ask the big questions?
Why should we care where we’ve come from, how the universe began, or what the meaning of life is? Hawking addresses this question from outside the lens of ‘real science’ which he concedes is something most people believe is too complicated for their comprehension.
Hawking concedes that answers to some of the most critical questions remain unknown but expresses optimism that one day, humankind will find them: “One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered.”KK Shahid1
The book kicks off with perhaps the most frequently asked question, Hawking’s position on what has been known to anyone remotely aware of his work: Is there a God? Hawking underscores what he maintained throughout his adult life that religion was an early attempt to answer questions such as the ones asked in the book, but was later overtaken by science.
“When people ask me if a God created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth.”
After urging the readers to appreciate the one life that they have, Hawking moves on to the next question: How did it all begin? He offers his explanations on how the universe came into being, what it’s like and where it’s headed. Hawking describes the universe as small and dense at the beginning and is now expanding into infinite space, all the while encoding everything happening in real time.
Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Here, Hawking speculates over intelligent life’s development in the universe, generously including herein the human race, “even though much of its behaviour throughout history has been pretty stupid and not calculated to aid the survival of the species”. The chapter explores the probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe and its development in the future.
Can we predict the future? The brief answer is no since the future positions and speeds of particles at a given time cannot be measured accurately simultaneously, as per Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
What is inside a black hole? They’re characterised “by their overall mass, electric charge and spin outside the event horizon”. The horizon in turn has the information that reveals what falls into the black hole, which cannot be sufficiently described by the three aforementioned characteristics. He writes: “People are still working on these issues and therefore the information paradox remains unresolved. But I am optimistic that we are moving towards a solution. Watch this space.”
Chapter 6 has a fun question many might want to ask: Is time travel possible? Let’s just say that Hawking hopes that humankind will have a Chronology Protection Law in the future “to prevent people from going back and killing their parents”. Sci-fi fans should not lose hope.
Will we survive on earth? is perhaps, going forward, the most critical question in the book. Instead of providing a definitive answer, Hawking says complexities in space will increase rapidly and hence humankind would have to evolve — perhaps not over the next hundred years, but definitely by the end of the millennia.
Does this evolution require colonisation of space? The brief answer: we have no other option.
“We could have a base on the Moon within thirty years, reach Mars in fifty years and explore the moons of the outer planets in 200 years. By reach, I mean in spacecraft with humans aboard. We have already driven rovers on Mars and landed a probe on Titan, a moon of Saturn, but if we are considering the future of the human race we have to go there ourselves.”
Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? Hawking doesn’t rule it out at all. He alludes to humankind’s invention of fire and then the fire extinguisher after repeatedly messing up. But given the prevalence of destructive technologies like nuclear weapons, Hawking urges coming generations to carefully plan ahead with regards to synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, “because it may be the only chance we will get”.
So, finally, how do we shape the future? By looking up at the stars and not down at the feet. By wondering and by being curious, regardless of how difficult life appears to be. In brief, by unleashing the imagination: “We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.”