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In His Last Book, Stephen Hawking Offers Brief Answers To Universe’s Biggest Questions

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The early years of the 20th century saw two great scientific revolutions. The first was the theory of relativity, led by Albert Einstein, that totally changed our conception of the universe from the two-dimensional version proposed by Newton to a unified, four-dimensional one. It is also what helped us understand that it’s the wiggles in space-time fabric that lead us to experience the force we all know as gravity.

The second revolution, which had an even more profound effect on our understanding of the universe was Quantum mechanics. Where rules of classical physics failed to explain the behaviour of the subatomic particles – Quantum Mechanics helped us understand their perplexing behaviour.

From subatomic forces that operate inside nuclei of atoms to the behaviour of matter, electricity and magnetism, everything that we know today about the physical world can now be fitted inside the Quantum paradigm.

Gravity, however, remains the one exception to this rule, with Einstein’s version of curved space-time continuing to be at loggerheads with the rules of Quantum mechanics. The search for a theory that unifies these two paradigms is perhaps the most ambitious project undertaken in modern theoretical physics, and it’s what Stephen Hawking’s life, or atleast, most part of it, was dedicated to.  

Hawking, in fact, was a staunch defender of ‘The Theory Of Everything’ or a single, hypothetical, all-encompassing theoretical framework of physics that links together all aspects of the universe. And even though the last four decades of research never really show clear experimental proof of its existence, his enthusiasm for the umbrella theory never waned.

“In 1980, I said I thought there was a 50-50 chance that we would discover a complete unified theory in the next twenty years. We have made some remarkable progress in the period since then, but the final theory seems about the same distance away. Will the Holy Grail of physics be always just beyond our reach? I think not,” he writes in the posthumous book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.

Most of Hawking’s life, in fact, was spent on seeking answers to life’s big questions. It is what defined his intellectual career, and also defines the larger purpose of his last book.

“Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions. And Hawking’s questions themselves keep on giving, generating breakthroughs decades later,” Nobel award-winning professor Kip Thorne, writes in the book’s introduction.

Divided into 10 chapters – ranging from the existence of God, to whether time travel may really be possible, Hawking uses each chapter seeks to answer one “big question”. While answering these questions, he manages to touch upon a host of topics one would typically associate with a Stephen Hawking book – Black Holes. General relativity. The Big Bang. Inflation. Galaxy formation. Gravitational waves. Imaginary time. M-theory. Cosmic strings.

The final four chapters touch on the future of humanity, the prospects for colonising space and whether artificial intelligence will outsmart us one day.

Through the questions, the reader not only takes a thought provoking journey into the universe but also into the mind of a man who travelled far and wide into it, despite living with a debilitating illness most of his life that confined him to a wheelchair.

For example, in the first chapter, writing about whether God exists or not, Hawking asks, “If you accept, as I do that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: what role is there for God?”.

The entire book in that sense is quintessentially Hawking in its approach – explained in an easy-to-read, matter of fact manner that urges a reader to question. Where things get too technical, he relies on facts, instead of delving into over-explanation.

While writing about his own personal life, Hawking isn’t afraid to be utterly honest, sometimes to the point of self-deprecation. For example, talking about his reputation of being ‘a world famous scientist’, he writes, “This is partly because scientists, apart from Einstein, are not widely known rock stars, and partly because I fit the stereotype of a disabled genius. I can’t disguise myself with a wig and dark glasses – the wheelchair gives me away.”.

In another place, speculating whether God had something to do with his disability, he writes, “For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, it’s possible that I have upset someone up there, but I believe everything can be explained another way, through the laws of nature”.

Those who may have read Hawking’s other works or are already familiar with concepts around cosmology, relativity and astronomy, may not find much that’s new in this new book, but for students, non-scientists and those fascinated by the workings of the universe, the book will definitely hold some appeal.

The one thing that will hold appeal for both the amateurs and professionals, and that definitely unifies the book in that sense is Hawking’s unflinching and unabiding faith in science and its potential to solve humanity’s biggest problems. Optimistic, upbeat and visionary, his answers to the big questions ultimately illustrate his belief in scientific understanding and rational thought as the key to humanity uncovering the universe’s secrets.

In its essence then, in Brief Answers to The Big Questions, Hawking just doesn’t answer the big questions, but implores each one of us to not be afraid of asking them.

His final words in the book may as well be his parting message to the world :

“So remember to look up at the stars and not at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.”

I can’t think of a better affirmation than this.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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