Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

When I was young, the Christmas presents I coveted the most were a Junior Chemistry Set and a telescope.  I read as many books on science as I could.  Unfortunately, my math skills resulted in little more than adding two-digit numbers.  There was nearly zero chance of a career in science. Despite this disappointment, I have never given up reading about the latest discoveries in the cosmos and in physics.  Of course, Stephen Hawking became my hero when I read his first book, A Brief History of Time.  While my eyes glazed over at the math, I still could not get enough.  Stephen died this year despite a crippling disease known as ALS.  He was given only a few years to live when he was in his early 20s.  He lived far longer than predicted.  Now, he has a new book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. 

There is something about the “voice” of his writing that is not condescending, but relaxing, gentle, and mesmerizing.  The book begins with an introduction and brief biography, which crowned Hawking as “the most renowned scientist since Einstein, known both for his groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology and for his mischievous sense of humor,” according to the dust jacket.  He even appeared as himself on several episodes of the hysterically funny comedy, The Big-Bang Theory.

Hawking starts off with “Why We Must Ask the Big Questions.”  He wrote, “People have always wanted answers to the big questions.  Where did we come from?  How did the universe begin?  What is the meaning and design behind it all?  Is there anyone out there?  The creation accounts of the past now seem less relevant and credible.  They have been replaced with a variety of what can only be called superstitions, ranging from New Age to Star Trek.  But real science can be far stranger than science fiction, and much more satisfying” (3).

He starts off boldly with a question as controversial as it is fascinating: IS THERE A GOD?  Stephen wrote, “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.  Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from?  Long ago, the answer was always the same: gods made everything.  The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural of phenomena like lighting, storms or eclipses.  Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always ling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science” (25).

Of course, Stephen raises another more than interesting question.  He wrote, “I would like to speculate a little on the development of life in the universe, and in particular on the development of intelligent life.  I shall take this to include the human race, even though much of its behavior throughout history has been pretty stupid and not calculated to aid the survival of the species” (67).

Hawking does not pull any punches.  His manner is matter of fact, and to the point.  Some other mind-bending questions he poses and thoroughly disposes of include: “How Did It All Begin?”  “Can we predict the future?”  “What is inside a black hole?”  and one that worries me, “Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?”

These and other questions are challenging to scientists and non-scientists alike.  Stephen Hawking will be missed, but, like Einstein, his work has opened new secrets of the universe, and it may take decades to prove some his hypotheses.  His latest book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions,” is undoubtedly a challenge.  But it is well worth the effort to learn something about the universe.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/30/18

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