I took my car in to be repaired last week. I was getting less and less response when I put my foot on the accelerator pedal. I strongly suspected a clutch problem (though you can never be sure, of course). The engineer sat in the car and revved it up and tried various things but quickly concluded that I was correct.
He then explained how the clutch mechanism works and what the problem was. I had this mental picture of lots of discs orbiting around and connecting with each other at great speed. In reality I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but I suppose it was re-assuring that he understood it all.
Quite often, this book, published last October, is a bit like that. It’s good to know that scientists like Stephen Hawking understand cosmic strings, space-time warping, special relativity, negative energy and, most famously, black holes.
So the answers are here. Whether the capacity to understand them is available in a specific reader’s mind is another question. (Interestingly, Professor Hawking confesses that he was “never more than halfway up the class” at school – though his nickname was “Einstein”, which must have been something of a pointer to his future career path).
But what do we mean by “understand”? Despite the sometimes forbidding nomenclature, Hawking managed to convince me that I understood many of the more complex concepts, at least for long enough for me to get to the end of the chapter. They say that brevity is the soul of wit and it’s Hawking’s way of briefly summing up these big (vast, more like!) concepts that makes the book so valuable and such a page-turner. It’s one I’m sure I will re-visit many times. And, thanks to this book, the quality of my understanding will be at least as good as my understanding of a clutch mechanism.
Stephen Hawking’s life story, though in many ways tragic and harrowing, is truly inspirational and has been turned into a film on a number of occasions, most notably with the Oscar-winning box office hit The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne.
There is much autobiographical material in the book. Arguably Hawking won the battle with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). There’s an interesting article on the TIME website which suggests why he may have lived so long with a disease which kills most sufferers at an early stage. For a moving account of the details of his struggles, see this documentary:
On the other hand, for all its physical and sensory frustrations, Hawking’s life must have been very satisfying in many respects: worldwide acclaim for his work and scientific legacy, bringing a daughter and two sons into the world and even exciting adventures like experiencing zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft owned by Zero Gravity Corp..
And so to the big questions, which are dealt with in ten chapters:
Is there a God?
How did it all begin?
Is there other intelligent life in the universe?
Can we predict the future?
What is inside a black hole?
Is time travel possible?
Will we survive on earth?
Should we colonise space?
Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?
How do we shape the future?
There are “Wow!” moments on most pages of this work. For instance, he demolishes the idea propounded by the steady-state theorists that the universe didn’t have a beginning.
“In my opinion, this is not a position any scientist should take. If the laws of science are suspended at the beginning of the universe, might not they also fail at other times? A law is not a law if it only holds sometimes. I believe that we should try to understand the beginning of the universe on the basis of science. It may be beyond our powers, but at least we should make the attempt”.
It was this attitude that led Hawking, working with Roger Penrose, to develop his famous Big Bang theory. In answering the question “What came before the Big Bang?”, he says: “According to the no-boundary proposal, asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless – like asking what is south of the South Pole – because there is no notion of time available to refer to. The concept of time only exists with our universe”.
For me, Brief Answers to the Big Questions has a way of filling in both small and very large gaps in my understanding of these huge concepts. It’s true that some of Hawking’s theories are contentious. It’s also true that my own ability to get my head around some of the more complex concepts was a limiting factor.
But overall this is a very readable and stimulating introduction to the vast landscape of the work of a true genius.