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.