Brief Answers to the Big Questions
The book Stephen Hawking was working on shortly before his death turns out to be more than a touching parting gift, said Marcelo Gleiser in NPR.org. It is, instead, “the book every thinking person worried about humanity’s future should read.” Across just 200 pages, the celebrated theoretical physicist addressed 10 big questions, including “Is there a God?” and “Is time travel possible?” But after focusing initially on matters closely tied to his specialty, he reveals that the book’s main purpose is to enumerate the threats to our collective future and how we might overcome them. He believed that our planet—because of global warming, the potential of nuclear war, and other threats—is headed toward an inevitable catastrophic failure within the next 1,000 years.
“The good news is that Hawking has an escape plan,” said James Marriott in The Times (U.K.). He speculates that if we make interstellar travel a long-term aim—a goal to be completed in 200 to 500 years—we will find a new planet to live on before Earth goes kaput. “This is all good fun,” especially when he explains why we should expect to find other intelligent life. But Hawking really is better at describing what science knows about the past and present than he is at prognosticating. This book’s most exciting, most dizzying chapter is “How did it all begin?” Hawking argues that before the Big Bang there was nothing. Stop to think about that: “I guarantee you’ll feel a bit sick. But in a good way.”
We expect more from Hawking, though, than some intellectual fun, said Philip Ball in New Scientist. Because he was a scientist of great accomplishment who spent most of his life in a wheelchair, twisted by a motor neuron disease that eventually robbed him of the capacity to speak, we came to think of him as an all-knowing genius. He enjoyed the role, “and that’s a cheering thought,” but the best way to read him is as a brilliant man who was merely human in his efforts to pontificate on subjects outside his area of expertise. “That we seek to put him on a pedestal is our problem, not his.” ■