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Book review: Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

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.



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Did the Great War ever really finish for Grandad Tipling?

1931 was a good year for the Tipling family. My Grandma and Grandad, Nellie and Lawrence Tipling, moved with their three daughters, Marjorie (16), Muriel (10) and my mother, Olive (7), from 16 Aysgarth Terrace, just off York Road in Leeds, to the city’s new Halton Moor Estate.

309 Halton Moor Avenue wasn’t just new – compared to Aysgarth Terrace it was sheer luxury. For a start you didn’t need to go across the cobbled toilet yard of a freezing cold morning and queue up to use one of the two shared toilets, which stood next to four great big dustbins. At the new house Nellie could utilise her mangle in the kitchen and then hang her washing outside her own back door, rather than on a line strung across the street, as she’d had to do for all those years at Aysgarth Terrace.

No. 309, with its smart privet hedge at the front, three bedrooms and a family bathroom, was set on a wide road that boasted trees and a nearby shopping parade. It even had a small hallway, where people could hang their coats and caps and put their umbrellas. On the day of the move, Nellie walked through the covered alleyway to the back of the house. “Ooh, come and see the garden, Lawrence!”, she exclaimed. Ever since arriving home from the Great War, Grandad had yearned for a decent garden. In fact, while they lived in Aysgarth Terrace he’d fought for the right to move next door, where there was a garden of sorts, albeit an extremely tiny one. Now his wish had been granted – a proper piece of land, stretching perhaps eighty or a hundred feet into the distance.

As a young lad, fresh-faced Lawrence, with his mop of black hair, had been on the stage, helping out as an assistant to a music hall entertainer with a performing dog. (I wonder how they’d have got on nowadays on Britain’s Got Talent?).

He met Nellie, who worked as a boot machinist before she was married, in 1912. Lawrence was employed in a fish and chip shop. And that’s the job he gave up when, on 29th February, 1916 – a leap year – at the age of 22, he kissed Nellie and the baby goodbye and went to war. kitchenerHe enlisted, “probably conscripted” as I discovered on this web page (now defunct). Conscription started in 1916. He joined his “Pals“, in the 11th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry (the “DLI“) at a time when the Battle of Verdun was just beginning. So far, bachelors had been called up before married men, but now the war was entering a crucial phase.

“Get summat down to throw up!”, said the man selling pork pies on the boat that took Lawrence and his pals across the Channel. My guess is that quite a lot of singing went on on board that ship, and maybe quite a lot of liquor was smuggled aboard too. I don’t know exactly when Grandad went to the Front Line, but I think it’s safe to assume that he underwent lengthy training before embarking, and probably received more after he arrived in France.

At some point Private 53222 Lawrence Tipling‘s battalion was sent to the Somme. I tried a few times (I wish I’d tried harder) to get him to describe what it was like at the Front Line. But in common with most of the men who survived that terrifying battle in unimaginably horrific circumstances, he hardly ever spoke about it.

He did describe one episode, though, a kind of black humour incident. He remembered that a lot of men were sent completely mad by the dreadful situation they found themselves in; late one freezing cold night, as he sat around a camp fire, in a shell crater along with lots of his mates, a soldier appeared over the brim of the shell hole and with a loud scream tossed a grenade into the blazing fire. Needless to say the whole company scrambled out of the crater, the men diving for cover as they tried to escape the blast. After a time, no explosion having occurred, they gingerly clambered back to the rim of the shell hole. There was the “mad” soldier, sat comfortably in front of the flames, warming his knuckles, his face wreathed in a huge smile. It had just been a trick to get a prime position in front of the fire. The hand grenade wasn’t armed …

Probably there were quite a few reasons why Grandad never went into more detail. Although the man in the shell crater had played a trick, many thousands of them did actually suffer from shell shock for years afterwards. It can’t have been pleasant to see a comrade suffering such an affliction.

And many of the men on the Western Front felt that they’d been tricked in a much bigger way too. Early on, the impression given by the government’s ‘marketing campaign’ – via posters, newspaper ads., sing songs in the music hall and speeches on the radio, was that going to war would be a bit of a jaunt – almost like a glorified Boy Scouts trip to the continent. But by the time Lawrence was conscripted, it had become clear that this would be no jaunt. He would almost certainly have known what he was letting himself in for, and would have been deeply worried about the prospects for Nellie and the baby if he didn’t return.

Seeing the films of life on the Somme, listening on TV to the old soldiers’ accounts of their comrades and pals being slaughtered alongside them, hearing about life and death in the trenches – trenches which the men themselves had to dig, which were often knee deep in muddy water and which became temporary graves for some – I can understand that most of them wouldn’t want to recall such awful memories. It hadn’t all been a horrendous nightmare – it had been real. Not the exciting six month stay in France and then home to an admiring family that they’d all been promised in the cinema newsreels and by the recruiting sergeants. Just day after day, and for some month after month and year after year of indescribable horror.

And in any case how do you convey the scenes that were played out all around you and the emotions that you experienced in such a situation? How do you do it justice? For a man like Lawrence, who probably left school at 14, it would have been impossible to find words to describe what he’d really have wanted to say. (Mind you, he probably wrote to Nellie. Apparently the postal service for letters back home was very efficient. I wonder what he wrote? – I’ll never know).

So many books have been written about the First World War; so many documentaries have been made; but for me it’s the War Poets that provide the most direct insight into the kind of things my Grandad must have experienced nearly a hundred years ago.
sassoonpic2Siegfried Sassoon, born about the same time as Grandad, was from a different background. The Sassoons were a comparatively wealthy family; he went to Marlborough and then on to university at Clare College, Cambridge. Siegfried (no German connection) had volunteered before the war even started and joined the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve) , Royal Welsh Fusiliers, as a second lieutenant, on 29th May, 1915. He was exceptionally brave, an outstandingly heroic man, and on July 27th, 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry”.

But in a way his writings have proven to be just as valuable a legacy as his heroism. On August 1st this year Sassoon’s diaries were put online, for the first time, by the University of Cambridge‘s digital library. The Sassoon Journals are packed with vivid descriptions of his experiences; and they also contain his Soldier’s Declaration, in which he rails against what he sees as the “deception” played out on the troops. And here was a man whose voice would be listened to: the Declaration was read out in the House of Commons on July 30th, 1917.

Amongst the many pages of harrowing details – like this – there are also frequent “asides” about, for instance, the countryside, the wildlife, food and drink and the general banter among the soldiers. Here he gives a touching description of the effect of the battle on the local bird population.

On this page he describes how the “Manchesters” are getting ready to go over the top. “I am looking at a sunlit picture of Hell”, he writes. His writings also tell us something about the chitter-chatter and rumour that went around the battlefield. On this page, for instance, he describes how the 2nd Queen’s had “legged it as usual”.

Sassoon was a realist about war. He knew that most soldiers weren’t cut out to be heroes. This comes through in much of his poetry, which to a large extent is basic polemic, scorning the people who waved off the innocent young men setting off for the battlefields:

“You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go”.

And what about the wounded, the men who limped home, some with horrific injuries?

“Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do whatever things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?”

Grandad was wounded in the left arm. It wasn’t horrific and in a way he was fortunate, if that isn’t a completely inappropriate term. He was hit by shrapnel in his left forearm, about a month after he’d been moved up to the Front Line. From what I could tell, it left him without the proper use of his middle fingers. He was discharged from the DLI on 27th May, 1918, about six months before the end of the war (11th November, 1918). When he arrived home, his hair had turned completely white. As compensation for his wound, the government paid him £1 a week until he died; the sum never increased.

grandads discharge card2

Overall he seemed to lead a reasonably pleasant life after the war. He worked for a firm of woollen merchants for forty years before moving to a tailoring business, where he stayed for some fifteen years. He was a member of the Royal and Ancient Order of the Buffaloes (the “Buffs”) for over fifty years. Grandma was a delegate for the Labour Party in 1928. Their daughters grew up and married. The three husbands, my uncle Bill Browne (Marjorie’s husband), my father Raymond (“Ray”) and my uncle Albert Pearson (Muriel’s husband) are all pictured below in front of Grandad’s greenhouse, in which he tended his tomato plants and his beloved chrysanthemums in their pots. “I’ve got chrysanths as big as me head, and you know how big that is!”, he once wrote to my mother.


He liked to eat tomatoes, as well as grow them. But he didn’t like the skins. With his gammy hand, it was quite a job for him to peel the skins off a tomato with his penknife.

He lived well into his eighties and Grandma into her nineties. They received a congratulatory telegram from the Queen in November 1975 on the occasion of their diamond wedding anniversary.

Whenever I visited no. 309, he’d always take me out into the garden, to show me how his cabbages were doing (usually better than his neighbour’s – he’d make sure to point that out!).

But, as I say, he never wanted to talk about the Great War. I often wonder what he was thinking about when he was alone in that garden, digging over the soil, getting the pots ready for the tomato plants, getting the trenches ready for the potatoes to go in.

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