BOOK REVIEW: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

brief answers

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking (Science Essays, 2018).

The most renowned scientist since Einstein, Stephen Hawking had assembled the ten essays on major (and in some ways controversial) science-and-philosophy-related issues facing the world’s people before his death. Now they have been published posthumously, book-ended by thoughtful remembrances of the man by actor Eddie Redmayne (who portrayed Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything) and fellow science heavyweight Kip Thorne, along with a touching final account of the great researcher’s funeral by his daughter (and occasional literary collaborator) Lucy Hawking.

Those bonus essays add an extra personal dimension to a book that, although a bit slim in size (230 pages) is nonetheless packed full of provocative and informative ideas. As usual, Hawking’s writing is well-reasoned, usually respectful of opposing viewpoints and eminently readable. His essays on topics ranging from “Is there a God?” to “How do we shape the future?” present his ideas and opinions in enough detail to convey his reasoning, without drowning the less scientifically inclined in a sea of specialized jargon and/or complex equations.

This is, as with so much of his earlier writings, a book that any reasonably intelligent person should be well able to understand. And not incidentally, it includes a heartfelt plea for more basic scientific literacy. In a world of ever-increasing knowledge, specialization and burgeoning technology, knowing and understanding basic science grows ever-more important. How else can people make informed decisions?

Given the speculative nature of so many of these essays (for instance: “Is time travel possible?”, “Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?” and that grand old chestnut “Is there other intelligent life in the universe?”) some of these articles are as much philosophical as much as scientific questions. As such, Hawking strives to be fair to other interpretations.

That doesn’t mean he suffers willful ignorance, however. The scorn he heaps on climate change deniers is perhaps the most obvious example of that.

In sum, this is a very interesting book, providing concise yet wonderful and fascinating glimpses into the heart, soul and mind of one of our time’s most influential, humanistic and truly intriguing people.

 

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