Brief Answers to the Big Questions review: 'Enjoy it, learn from it, and regret it is Stephen Hawking's last book'
Science: Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking John Murray, hardback, 256 pages, €19.99
Stephen Hawking’s final musings on God, intelligent life in the universe and the possibility of time travel.
His name summons up the image of a casually but well-dressed scholar slumped in a wheelchair, hands crossed in his lap where a carer has arranged them, legs in carefully creased trousers tilted at an angle, shoes awkwardly askew on the footrest. In contrast to his frozen body, his slightly waxen, collapsed face was in constant motion, cheek muscles and eyes squinting rapidly to trigger the communications system that linked him to the world. Those who knew him well had learned to read his facial expressions: yes, no, anger, joy, mischief, disgust, his look of "hurry up and get on with it" that appeared in the photograph on the cover of his funeral programme. He struggled to keep his eyes wide open, but his grin could light the universe.
This was Stephen Hawking. He died in March at age 76, having survived 55 years with motor neurone disease after initially, at 21, being told he had only two years to live. "Survived" is not an adequate word. He rode his wheelchair in the mainstream of the contemporary world, inspiring millions with his stubborn courage. He published opinions that influenced and sometimes angered people around the globe. He repeatedly warned of disaster for the human race unless we control artificial intelligence and colonise space. At the time of his death he was still collaborating in ground-breaking scientific work to do with how the universe began, whether we live in one of an infinite number of universes, whether black holes irrevocably devour precious information.
In his last year, Hawking was also re-exploring his personal archive: his lectures, memoirs, academic and non-academic writing. He was choosing what to revise and incorporate into a book called Brief Answers to the Big Questions.
Hawking died before he could complete the book, but he came near enough for his scientific colleagues, friends and family to decide they could and should finish it for him. Hawking had for some time been asking others to write some of his lectures and articles, much as presidents employ speech-writers, using his ideas, his previously written material, his style, always subject to his vetting and approval.
This book came out seven months after his death and put to rest concerns that it would be just a mishmash of recycled material. To answer 10 "big questions", his colleagues and friends have fleshed out what Hawking had succeeded in writing and the choices he had made from his archive. They have added transitional passages and adjusted wording and syntax to keep the style and tone consistent. Paragraphs that originally targeted an audience of academic scientists have been translated into the language of the rest of us, and some of Hawking's science ends up being easier to understand here than in his earlier works. The book begins with essays by Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything; by Kip Thorne, Hawking's colleague and one of his closest friends; and by Hawking himself. It ends with a moving afterword by his daughter, Lucy.
"Brief" had been a Hawking trademark since his 1988 best-seller, A Brief History of Time, but these "brief answers" are not really that brief. The chapters include the science in which Hawking was engaged as early as his years as a graduate student at Cambridge in the 1960s, and as late as the weeks before his death, as well as the human rights and future-of-humanity issues about which he was passionate. Hawking was often accused of being out of his depth in matters outside of cosmology, and his co-authors have done a remarkable job of backing up his pronouncements with further information, as he must have hoped to do himself. They wisely chose to include verbatim many of his most- repeated comments. Chapter 10 ends with the words he used in his lectures to young audiences: "Remember to look up at the stars and not down 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 give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future." Those were words he himself lived by.
Most of the chapters, but particularly Chapter 6, 'Is Time Travel Possible?', and Chapter 10, 'How Do We Shape the Future?', are vintage Hawking - with the straightforward, engaging style of A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell. Chapter 1, 'Is There a God?', lays out the reasoning behind Hawking's unbelief in more detail than he has done before. What is not addressed is the bigger question he asked at the end of A Brief History of Time - not how the universe might exist without a creator, but "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" He later commented that if he knew that, "then I would know everything important".
Chapter 3, 'Is There Other Intelligent Life in the Universe?', is arguably the most interesting. Part of the answer lies in tracing the story of life on our own planet from the earliest context in which it may have arisen, through genetic evolution, to "a new phase of evolution" in which information is not transmitted genetically but handed down through speech and writing, and finally to the current possibility that human beings may redesign themselves genetically.
The chapters are written in the first person, as if entirely penned by Hawking. No, he did not write this book alone in his final months, painstakingly, word by word using the twitches of his cheek and his computer program. But the words are mostly his, and the ideas and spirit are definitely his, full of self-deprecating wit and the fun he had taking readers with him on the scientific adventures he loved.
Hawking's colleagues, friends and family, labouring out of deep respect for him, have produced a splendid book. Enjoy it, learn from it, and regret that it is Hawking's last.
⬤ Kitty Ferguson is the author of 'Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind' and 'Lost Science: Astonishing Tales of Forgotten Genius'