BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS: STEPHEN HAWKING’S OFFERING TO HUMANITY
Posted on February 12th, 2019

By Rohana R. Wasala

Our future is a race  between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins.-Stephen Hawking

(The following essay by me as a nontechnical reader of BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS and a longtime Hawking fan refers to its Hardback edition {ISBN 978-1-473-69598-6} John Murray (Publishers), Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y, ODZ, 2018. The copy of the book before me was printed and bound in Australia by McPhersons Printing Group. 232 pp)

Renowned theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author  Stephen Hawking’s first popular book about space and time ‘A Brief History of Time’ was published in 1988. He was a theoretical physicist with a passionate interest in cosmology. Hawking made history with his discoveries in the field. I well remember that, in its cover story with the headline Reading God’s Mind”, the June 13, 1988 issue of the weekly Newsweek magazine described Stephen Hawking as the ‘Master of the Universe’. I was delighted to re-read that original article, written by Jerry Adler et al, on the Newsweek website on March 30, 2018, just over two weeks after the scientist’s death; it was a reproduction in memory of Stephen Hawking who had died, at the age of seventy-six, in the early hours (local time) of Wednesday, March 14, at Cambridge UK.

My interest in Stephen Hawking turned into a kind of fandom when I was able to find and read a copy of the aforementioned book at some time in the 1991-1992 period. By then the book had for years been a record-breaking bestseller, and its author of ‘wheelchair genius’ fame a brilliant star in the media world where, though, theoretical cosmological research was a nebular region as far as we ordinary people were concerned. I found, ‘A Brief History of Time’ to be a difficult book to read, as millions of other readers around the world did. Concepts like ‘sum over histories’ or ‘imaginary time’ that he introduced into the text  made little sense to me as it probably did to many others, but I managed to get some general idea about what Hawking was trying to communicate. (Hawking himself later admitted that he used these terms without adequate explanation of their meaning.  In literature I read subsequently, I found that ‘sum over histories’ refers to a mathematical technique originally developed by Richard Feynman to analyze an event in quantum mechanics, and that ‘imaginary time’ refers to time measured in ‘imaginary numbers’, which itself refers to a mathematical device.  Stephen Hawking and his friend Jim Hartle of the then {early 1980s} newly created Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, used the imaginary numbers technique to calculate the square root of negative numbers. Explanations of ‘imaginary time’ and ‘sum over history’ are found, for example, in Stephen Hawking’s collection of essays ‘BLACK HOLES AND BABY UNIVERSES and Other Essays’, 1993, Bantam Book edition first published by Transworld Publishers, London, UK, in 1994, on pp 74-6 and 84-5 respectively. The fifth essay in the book under the heading ‘A Brief History of a Brief History’ between  pp 29-34 is interesting to read in this connection.) The mass appeal of the book, despite it not being an ‘easygoing’ book (Hawking’s own description) he attributed partly to people’s interest in him as a disabled person, an idea that he repeats in the introductory chapter of BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS about the phenomenal success of his first popular book of space and time: ‘Undoubtedly, the human-interest story of how I have managed to be a theoretical physicist and a bestselling author despite my disabilities has helped’ (p.19).

I, as a person  with an abiding interest in science and things scientific, immediately became an avid reader of his books,  essays, and journal articles, and what others have written about him and his work. Stephen Hawking: the man and the star” was the title of an article of mine published in The Island on January 14, 2000, that is, just over nineteen years ago. It was inspired by the genuine admiration I felt for him as the person who had already become the most celebrated living scientist in the world at the time. He had by then begun to be compared to Albert Einstein, who is still remembered by many as the greatest scientist of the last (i.e., 20th) century. Hawking had already been honoured by being implicitly compared to Isaac Newton (1642-1726) about whom his junior contemporary  Alexander Pope the poet wrote: ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night – God said Let Newton be” and all was light’. Hawking was appointed to the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge University in November 1979. Newton was the second to hold that position.  Like Newton himself (‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’), Stephen Hawking was modest about his achievements, as seen above when he attributed the popularity of his A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME to people’s interest in the stark contradiction between his genius and his physical disabilities. Incidentally, the title of the collection of scientific writings dealing with the ideas of  five intellectual ‘giants’ who figured most prominently in the scientific revolution of the past five hundred years (Nicolaus Copernicus,   Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein) compiled by Stephen Hawking ‘ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS’, published by Running Press, US, in 2002, was obviously inspired by  Isaac Newton’s self effacing acknowledgement quoted above of his debt to previous scientists from whom he had learned.

Outside of the academic sphere too, Hawking managed to lead a normal life as a family man and as an ordinary citizen, that is, he managed to live as normal a life as possible in his circumstances, with human life’s inevitable highs and lows, as so touchingly delineated in the autobiographical book ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’, 1999, written by Jane Hawking his college sweetheart and wife of thirty years until their official separation in 1995 and his marriage the same year to his second wife Elaine; Jane is also the mother of his three children Robert, Lucy, and Timothy. The 2014 motion picture directed by James Marsh ‘The Theory of Everything’ was based on Jane Hawking’s book ‘Travelling to Infinity’ aforementioned. Actor Edward Redmayne who portrayed Stephen Hawking in the movie writes the Foreword to BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS  as Eddie Redmayne. It was after having done several months’ research in preparation for the role that he went to see his iconic subject in person for the first time. Redmayne writes that he ‘was struck by his extraordinary power and his vulnerability’ on meeting the electric wheelchair-borne scientist on that occasion. He was flabbergasted by ‘this scientist of phenomenal talent, whose main communication was through a computerized voice along with a pair of exceptionally expressive eyebrows’. Redmayne also tells us what Hawking told him when he went to see him after the screening of the film. He said he had seen the film and had enjoyed it. ‘He was moved by it, but famously he also stated that he thought there should have been more physics and fewer feelings’, something ‘impossible to argue with’, writes Redmayne.

While not ignoring matters of mundane existence, Hawking was most focused as a scientist and as an acdemic.  We come across a  number of instances where he makes lighthearted comments about such less exalted things as the rising cost of living in his home country and the alleged craziness of Trump politics in America. Thus, not only was he the ‘Master of the Universe’, but he was the master of his own fate. Had it not been for his triumph over himself in his physically paralyzed state, he would not have achieved  the leading position he occupied in the field of cosmological research. At the time of his death, Hawking was the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, University of Cambridge. His daughter Lucy, in her Afterword to the book, writes: ‘My father never gave up, he never shied away from the fight. At the age of seventy-five, completely paralysed and able to move only a few facial muscles, he still got up everyday, put on a suit and went to work. He had stuff to do and was not going to let a few trivialities get in his way.’ (p.217)

Cosmological physics tends to distantiate most people who are not physicists with its esoteric equations, abstract theories, and futuristic propositions that seem (to lay persons like me, at least) too unrealistic to become implementable at any time before the human race goes extinct, but Hawking’s ability to explain his views with great lucidness and frequent flashes of humour makes reading him fun.  ‘A Brief History of Time’ of 1988 was addressed to a popular readership. Similarly, BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS of 2018 is meant for ordinary readers, especially the ‘interested and engaged’ young readers; it gives a clear idea of the ‘Big Questions’ that confront our contemporary world and  Hawking’s own scientifically informed forward-looking ‘Brief Answers’ to them. It is significant that while the introduction to his first popular book of science A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME was written by the famous astronomer, cosmologist, extraterrestrial life researcher, author and science popularizer Professor of Cornell University the late Carl Sagan, the introduction to BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS, has been written by his friend astrophysicist and cosmologist, Nobel laureate  Professor Kip Thorne of California Institute of Technology. Both of them were longtime close friends and colleagues of Hawking.  It is as if the compilers of the latter book wanted to frame Hawking’s thirty years (1988-2018) of popular science writing as a single and singular continuum, with his theoretical launch pads as firm as ever, in his human welfare directed exploration of the Cosmos.

Hawking was unostentatiously proud about the contribution he was able to make to science, but his characteristic humility remained intact. His rare physical disability was well known to all around the world who took an interest. But what asserted itself in his life was his amazing intellect, which more than compensated for his bodily handicap caused by a form of motor neuron disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was diagnosed with this disease at the age of 21 in 1963. (Hawking was given only two years to live by the doctors, but he beat their prognosis by at least 53 years!)  In Chapter 9 which involves a discussion of the future progress and prospects for humanity of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Hawking writes: ‘Intelligence is central to what it means to be human. Everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence’ (p.183).

Products of human intelligence were what he had to offer to the scientific  world, and through it, to all humankind. This devastatingly disabling disease leaves the affected person almost completely paralyzed because it kills the neurons that control the voluntary muscles in the body. In Hawking’s case, it was a perfect illustration of cosmic irony: The most frustrating result of ALS for Hawking was that it took away his ability to speak and communicate his thoughts and ideas to others. In this context, more important and more remarkable than even his extraordinary intellectual abilities was, I think, his great moral courage, and his sense of fortitude that enabled him to remain mentally focused despite his physical affliction, and to make available to the world the results of his unique intellectual capacity. After reading his posthumously published last book, I feel confirmed in my belief that Hawking wanted to devote his life in science to the general welfare, including particularly world peace and the economic wellbeing, of the whole human race and was apparently least  worried about his own incurable physical condition. He was determined to popularize the study of theoretical physics  and to work on related research subjects such as artificial intelligence, particularly, among the young by demonstrating its attractions to them. He was fully aware of AI’s enormous possibilities as well as its potential dangers, abuses, and pitfalls, which he took care to warn them about.  In my opinion, Hawking’s behaviour was as close as was humanly possible to what neuroscientist Jorge Moll and co-researchers into the moral dimension of human actions categorize as ‘genuine altruism’: ‘Actions that are beneficial to others, with no direct personal benefits (material or reputation gains) and no expected reciprocation’ (as quoted in the 2010 Sam Harris book ‘THE MORAL LANDSCAPE – How Science Can Determine Human Values’, p. 122)

Stephen Hawking’s BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS was published about seven months after his death, but it was one of the undertakings he worked on in what he didn’t know was going to be the last year of his life.  According to Lucy Hawking, her father’s intention was to bring his contemporary writings into a single volume. The publisher says that the compilers of the book drew upon the enormous personal archive  that Stephen Hawking maintained of his responses (in the form of speeches, interviews and essays) to the ‘big questions’ about which scientists, technological entrepreneurs, senior business figures, political leaders and the general public asked him to express his ideas.

In BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS, Hawking expresses himself on ten ‘big’ questions. There are  eleven chapters in the book, but the opening chapter is not numbered; it stands by itself. It is self-explanatorily headlined ‘Why we must ask the big questions’.  The ten big questions form the headings of the other chapters of the book numbered from 1 to 10:  Is there a God? How did it all begin? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Can we predict the future? What is inside a black hole? Is time travel possible? Will we survive on Earth? Should we colonise space? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?  How do we shape the future? Hawking believes that one day we will know the answers to all these questions (through science).

His answer to the first big question is as unequivocal as it was in the 1988 ‘A Brief History of Time’, where he said that a Creator God had no choice in creating the universe. In this his final book Hawking repeats the argument that since the laws of nature are fixed God has no role to play in it. He totally rejects belief in an anthropomorphic personal God. He claims that he uses the word ‘God’ in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God ( a phrase first used in ‘A Brief History of Time’ that was snatched by  Creator God apologists to mislead people to assume that Hawking was a theist) is knowing the laws of nature. He points out that science is answering questions that used to be the province of religion. (Please look at my casual reference to Sam Harris’s book ‘The Moral Landscape’ above relating to human morality, which used to be generally considered the exclusive domain of religion. – RRW). The answer he proposes to the second big question confirms his firm God-denial. Talking about the beginning of the universe he maintains that space and energy were invented in an event  we now call the Big Bang. Space and time also began at the Big Bang. There is no role for a Creator God. These things have been confirmed by scientific observations done since Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915, which unified time and space. Hawking does not rule out the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  His answers to the other big questions are similarly based on scientific reason.

Early in the partly biographical introductory chapter mentioned above (‘Why we must ask the big questions’ pp. 3-22) he hints at what motivated his life in science: ‘I am a scientist. And a scientist with a deep fascination with physics, cosmology, the universe and the future of humanity. I was brought up by my parents to have an unwavering curiosity and, like my father, to research and try to answer the many questions that science asks us…’ (p.3). He says that one of the great revelations of the space age (that we live in) has been the perspective it has given us humans on ourselves: ‘When we see the Earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole. We see the unity, and not the divisions. It is such a simple image with a compelling message; one planet, one human race./I want to add my voice to those who demand immediate action on the key challenges for our global community. I hope that going forward, even when I am no longer here, people with power can show creativity, courage and leadership. Let them rise to the challenge of the sustainable development goals, and act, not out of self-interest, but out of common interest. I am very aware of the preciousness of time. Seize the moment. Act now.’ (pp. 4-5) The challenges meant here are those touched on in addition to the big questions specifically dealt with such as how to feed an ever growing population, provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease, and slow down global climate change. Hawking is hopeful that science and technology will offer the answers to these; but this will need a new generation who are interested and engaged and have an understanding of science. Asked  ‘What world-changing idea, small or big, would you like to see implemented by humanity?’, Hawking  answered: ‘I would like to see the development of fusion power to give an unlimited  supply of clean energy, and a switch to electric cars. Nuclear fusion would become a practical power source and would provide us with an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.’ (p. 209)

Hawking accepted life with great courage: ‘I have been enormously privileged, through my work, in being able to contribute to our understanding of the universe. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me. Without them , the wonder of it all would be lost on me’ (p.21). With an implicit reference to himself as a model for inspiration, Hawking addresses the final words of the introductory chapter to young readers: ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done’ (p.22), as if they were his own children. That was the advice that his father gave him and that he gave his children.

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