Reading room: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Given the level of hype around the recent release of Brief Answers to the Big Questions, I was somewhat disappointed by Stephen Hawking’s final book.

Hawking died in March and was apparently working on the tome a year before his death. With it unfinished, various collaborators and friends have helped out, delving into his vast archives to complete chapters or fill in the blanks. Indeed, the acknowledgements name over 20 scientists who have given their time to finish the book.

Suitable for all ages

And this is one of the problems I had. As I read the book, it wasn’t clear what passages were fresh and what was taken from the archives, or even whether it was his Hawking’s own voice or someone else speaking for him.

The book also could have done with some editing. I lost count of the number of times I read a page about a definition or history of the Uncertainty Principle. With the chapters being so short (the book itself is around 55 000 words), such repetition becomes obvious.

Also in one chapter Hawking seems to suggest that we have only discovered Jupiter-sized planets outside our Solar System, when we have actually found many that are Earth-sized. There are also brief mentions of Brexit and Donald Trump that seem to be thrown in rather unnecessarily, presumably to give the book a more up-to-date feel.

The strongest chapters in the book are when Hawking is describing quantum mechanics, time and black holes (although the chapter about black holes is pretty hard going… supertranslations, anyone?). However, I was less convinced when Hawking tackled other issues. He made it seem like all our problems as a species would be solved if only we colonise another planet. But who is to say that those same issues would magically disappear the minute we land on Mars?

He also seems to suggest that artificial intelligence would be positive for humanity, but doesn’t really discuss the potentially huge societal changes that would result. He also seems to extrapolate the rise of machines and artificial intelligence, but doesn’t do so with humans, pointing out that evolution is incredibly slow. But who is to say that decades from now humans could be easily genetically engineered (notwithstanding the huge ethical issues) to be so evolved that they could outsmart any type of artificial intelligence, or even join forces with it. A scary prospect indeed.

That apart, this book will undoubtedly be devoured by popular-science readers and it has already made its way onto the top 10 non-fiction list. But I doubt it will have anywhere near the same impact as Hawking’s classic A Brief history of Time.

Author: Michael Banks

UK science writer

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