Last year, we lost a man who was possibly one of the greatest scientific minds to date. Stephen Hawking took after Albert Einstein in a quest to discover how the universe works, even in the face of the greatest adversity. Hawking was a pioneer on the quest to reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and his specialties were the study of black holes and how we might be able to reverse what we know about them to find out how the Big Bang occurred. Brief Answers to the Big Questions was the first book I read by Hawking, but I already feel like I’ve learned so much.
He starts off the book with a question that I always love to ponder—Is there a god?—and I try to get as many people’s thoughts on the matter as I can, so certainly Stephen Hawking’s musings on the existence of a god are worth considering. To him, the only argument for the existence of god that still remotely stands is the argument that there must have been a creator of our universe.
I believe that the complex workings of the Big Bang are nearly impossible for a layperson such as myself to understand, and it often seems like the only people qualified to comment have PhD’s in theoretical physics. But how the Big Bang occurred is still of utmost importance, because it may be the central question in the debate of God’s existence, so people like me shouldn’t just say “Well I have no degrees in science, and that’s just too hard to understand.” Fortunately, we have books like this where Hawking tries his very best to dumb it down and help us normal people understand complex scientific phenomena. I’ll allow him to explain why the Big Bang can account for how we can get a whole universe for free:
“How does an entire universe full of energy, the awesome vastness of space and everything in it, simply appear out of nothing? . . . We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.” p. 31
“The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.” p. 35
“You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang . . . Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth—the Earth is a sphere that doesn’t have an edge, so looking for it is a futile exercise.” (elsewhere, he also describes it as trying to find somewhere south of the South Pole) p. 38
After his discussion of the existence of God and the Big Bang, Hawking takes the discussion all throughout space and time, from black holes to the future of our planet. The “Big Questions” are, in total:
- 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?
You can see from these questions that this is an important book. A lot of Hawking’s ideas seem really out there, such as his urges to try to colonize other solar systems, and his propositions that perhaps we should try time travel and that we might soon have to accept robots into society with rights as electronic persons. But this kind of thinking is necessary; how would we get anywhere without some crazy ideas and skepticism? Hawking himself had a lot of ideas in theoretical physics that never held up, but it was his willingness to have those wild ideas which gave him those successful ones that did manifest into something: that the universe must have begun with a Big Bang instead of eternal existence in a steady state.
Hawking had a very evidence-based, scientific mindset. After he gained his PhD arguing for a Big Bang, he then tried to prove himself wrong with the idea of a steady state, but it didn’t hold. In the book, he also discusses another time that he had to follow the evidence where it lead and change his mind:
“Like everyone else at the time, I accepted the dictum that a black hole could not emit anything. I therefore put quite a lot of effort into trying to get rid of this embarrassing effect. But the more I thought about it, the more it refused to go away, so that in the end I had to accept it.” p. 113
Hawking famously said that part of the reason why he wasn’t religious is because physics has no room for personal bias. Obviously, there are religious scientists, but for him, he wasn’t letting that get in the way of accurate science. In the end, he didn’t find any good reason why a god might exist—and this makes sense, for someone who more or less proved the Big Bang.
Throughout the book, I found Hawking to be not only honest and intellectual, but witty, with bits and pieces of dry humor, which I always appreciate. Several times he says things along the lines of:
“There are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year… Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage and no use to any form of life.” p. 77
With this, I leave you with several other quotes that I greatly enjoyed from Brief Answers to the Big Questions, as well as with a great encouragement to read it for yourself.
“At the end of all this, the fact that we humans, who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come to an understanding of the laws governing us, and our universe, is a great triumph.” p. 21
“For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature.” p. 26
“One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible. I use the word ‘God’ in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature.” p. 28
“If there are beings alive on Alpha Centauri today, they would be blissfully ignorant of the rise of Donald Trump.” p. 175
“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfil our potential and create a better world for the whole human race.” p. 195