Brief Answers to the Big Questions
“Hawking’s writing is a welcome leap beyond those scientists who too often opine on popular topics in a scholarly but humdrum fashion.”
Philosophers from antiquity have reveled in the attempt to answer those questions we all wonder about. In this, his last book (under development at the time of his death), Professor Hawking—physicist and no fan of philosophy—does not flinch at tackling the Big Questions. Is there a God? is there other intelligent life in the universe? Will we survive life on Earth? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? Those questions among others Hawking boldly and beautifully confronts.
What business does a scientist have addressing the greatest of questions in the realm of religion: Is there a God? Hawking writes that we should call on the laws of nature to ask how the universe began, using that knowledge to see whether evoking the existence of God is our only option. We should make the attempt even though it “may be a task beyond our powers.”
The companion question that arises with such arguments is how can you get something from nothing? Hawking gives a brief explanation that covers a lot of physics, ground he has covered in his previous works, but with clarity here that deserves a careful read. (Take heart: There is only one equation in the entire book!)
Hawking often expresses his lighter side, as in answering the question of whether other intelligent life in the universe exists. “This intelligent life need not be anything like humans. Little green men would do as well. In fact, they might do even better. The human race does not have a very good record of intelligent behavior.”
Is time travel possible? The author of A Brief History of Time, the book that brought worldwide fame to Professor Hawking, loved venturing into that realm. Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows time travel, he notes. In fact, it cannot be ruled out because of our present understanding of the laws of physics, even though logic contradicts them (for example, the possibility of coming home to kill our parents). Nevertheless as he explains, travel into the past may be possible by discovering ingenious ways of contorting the fabric of space-time—no small task, physicists would agree.
But if time travel is indeed possible, Hawking asks why hasn't someone from the future arrived to tell us how to do it? With tongue in cheek, he once held a party at Cambridge for time travelers, but to make sure that only genuine time travelers came, he didn't send out the invitations until the day after the party.
Hawking’s writing is a welcome leap beyond those scientists who too often opine on popular topics in a scholarly but humdrum fashion. In addressing the evolution of complex forms of life, he writes: “At some point during our 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, something beautiful happened. This information processing got so intelligent that life forms became conscious. Our universe has now awoken, becoming aware of itself. I regard it as a triumph that we, who ourselves are mere stardust, have come to such a detailed understanding of the universe in which we live.”
Occasionally the writing betrays Hawking’s longtime claim of being an ardent optimist. Threats to Earth are “too big and too numerous,” among them global warming, nuclear war, disease, famine, and over-population. He was bent on leaving earth some day—not just because it would be another fascinating place to explore and venture out to, but we might need to escape an Earth that could be headed for disaster. Although he was an enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, he warned that an encounter with extraterrestrials “might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus—and I don’t think they thought they were better off for it.”
On artificial intelligence (AI) Hawking expressed doubt that humans in a distant future will have the capability to contain AI and prevent it from taking off on its own, having acquired an entirely different agenda from ours. On this point he was serious enough to have opened the Leverhulme Centre for the study for the Future of Intelligence, dedicated to the future of our civilization and our species and working on controlling AI as one of its missions.
Professor Hawking believed that knowing the mind of God is learning and understanding all the laws of nature. His prediction: We will be there by the end of this century. His succinct yet insightful Brief Answers to the Big Questions is a book highly recommended for anyone who has ever contemplated those questions, perhaps giving the reader a point of view never considered or even imagined. Such challenges to our own humble minds are among the reasons we read, ponder and explore.