By Chet Yarbrough
Brief Answers to the Big Questions
By Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne-foreword, Lucy Hawking-afterword
Narrated by Ben Whishaw
Stephen Hawking (English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author)
“Big Answers to Big Questions” is Stephen Hawking’s last book. It is posthumously compiled by others.
Though many books have been written by Hawking, none are as popular as “A Brief History of Time”. However, this compilation of Hawking’s thoughts deserves equal, if not greater, popularity. It is simpler to understand and addresses a wider range of subjects that puzzle human beings.
“Brief Answers…” does not definitively answer the questions that are raised. It does offer a perspective from a person that is one of the great minds of modern science.
Karl Popper’s dictum is that “He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test…retires from the game.” By that criteria, Hawking’s “Brief answers…” can only be right or wrong. Even Einstein’s theories are still being tested.
What is the origin of life?
Hawking’s answer is the “Big Bang”. The origin of life begins with the “Big Bang”, a somewhat pejorative term that describes a black hole. This black mass is formed from a consolidation of gaseous and fragmented material that compresses to a point smaller than a pea.
Is there an explanation for something being created from nothing?
Hawking’s answer is related to the theory of the “big bang”. Time did not exist before the big-bang. The arrow of time is created by the instantaneous expansion of our universe’s compressed black hole. Hawking argues before time there is nothing. The creation of this world came from the physics of compression and its consequence; i.e. inflation, the instantaneous expansion of a black hole.
From that tiny spot in the cosmos, Hawking argues a universe is born. This minute point of compression is postulated by Hawking to expand instantaneously (termed cosmic inflation).
In accordance with Einstein’s law of physics, mass and energy are equivalent and cannot be destroyed. Instantaneous inflation is a changed form of energy and mass with space being its primary constituent. That instantaneous expansion of a black hole made the universe. This universe is made of many galaxies (estimated to be between 200 billion and 2 trillion); of which we are only one, called the Milky Way.
From the big bang, the elements of life are formed. Hawking explains chemical interactions from the explosion lead to the first carbon-based life’ forms. That combination of chemicals evolves into plants, animals, fungi, protists, archaea, and bacteria.
Is the only explanation for the existence of earth an omniscient and omnipresent God?
The “big bang” is Hawking’s answer; without insisting that there is no God. Hawking’s argument is founded on science that offers a plausible alternative explanation.
What are the greatest threats to life on earth? Hawking notes four. One, nuclear war; two, global warming; three over-population, and four—an asteroid collision with earth.
Not surprising to some, Hawking suggests the first two are accelerated by the election of Donald Trump. The third and fourth are another matter.
Does life exist on other planets?
Hawking believes it is probable. However, he believes it unlikely to be humanoid. He suggests the evolution of humankind is a confluence of serendipitous circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated.
How will human beings survive on a world with diminishing resources?
Hawking believes human survival depends on habitation of other planets.
He argues that the same thing that motivated Columbus to find a new continent motivates humankind to journey into space.
Through a combination of curiosity (born partly of greed for wealth and power in my opinion) and necessity, explorers expanded their domains. Hawking suggests the same holds true today.
Will humankind visit other solar systems?
Hawking explains the limitations and problems of space travel and habitation. The distances involved in finding a planet like earth are currently too great.
Planets in other solar systems are not reachable with the energy limitations of current propulsion technology. Long distance space travel is not insurmountable, but presently it is beyond the capability of experimental science.
Hawking argues that funding for space travel research needs to be increased. Planets and moons in our solar system will require elaborate survival systems to deal with a lack of water, harsh climate, and unbreathable air. However, planets like Mars offer some refuge based on technological innovation.
Will a law of nature that explains everything about everything be discovered?
Hawking believes someone will find a theory that combines quantum theory with the special theory of relativity. The present state of science suggests “God does play dice”, contrary Albert Einstein’s belief. What remains unknown is how the theory of a causal world can be the same as a probabilistic world. Hawking believes the melding of quantum theory and Einstein’s theory will be the answer to the puzzle of existence.
Is Artificial Intelligence a danger to humankind?
Hawking argues that A.I. is potentially dangerous, but also a possible boon to humankind. He believes A.I. will exceed the capability of human reasoning. Hawking argues human beings must responsibly limit actions taken by A.I. that might be detrimental to humankind.
With the advance of genetic engineering (like Crispr), Hawking argues the human genome will be modified. That modification may involve A.I. in ways that enhance human capability. On the other hand, it may destroy human consciousness (whatever that is).
Hawking explains a dire prediction for A.I. is its potential to improve itself at the expense of humans.
Despite the four possible causes for human extinction, Hawking believes the more likely cause of human extinction will be an asteroid collision with earth. Humans, like the dinosaurs, will die in a bang, rather than a whimper.
There are other interesting thoughts from Hawking but a final question is–what discovery, in Hawking’s opinion, would be the most valuable to the world? What discovery would hold the most promise?
Hawking suggests the world’s energy and environmental problems can be addressed by one discovery. The discovery of a method for creating energy from nuclear fusion. Such a discovery would diminish degradation of our environment and improve the odds for interstellar travel.