Home Article Book Reviews STEPHEN HAWKING


Extract New Scientist 20 October 2018
(email: live@newscientist.com)


(As Stephen Hawking’s* final book is published, his daughter Lucy Hawking reflects on its meaning for her.)

. . . . My father’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, is a triumph in many ways. It is a summation of his career, both in science and in public advocacy on a range of issues that he cared about deeply.

. . . . From examination of the nature of life itself to exploration of the most mysterious regions of space, the book is a hymn to rational scientific enquiry.

. . . . Odd though it seems, technically I am my father’s most prolific co-author. Together, we created a series of adventure novels for kids that read like escapist fantasy, except that the science in all of them was accurate and up to date.

. . . . Born on the anniversary of Galileo’s death, my father died on Einstein’s birthday. This final flourish somehow seemed so typical of him, an awesome poetry that left us in bewildered wonderment through our tears.

. . . . As lifelong best friend Kip Thorne says in his introduction to the book, ‘Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions’. If Brief Answers is the end, then it is a comfort that the big questions live on.


Extract by Philip Ball

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking, Hodder & Stoughton, 2018

. . . . Hawking’s personality was as insulated as the Queen’s, impermeably fortified by the role allotted to him.

There’s a hint in Brief Answers that he knew this: “I fit the stereo type of a disabled genius,” he writes.

. . . . While it was delightful to see how in everyday life he demolished the laziness that links physical with mental disability, he did so only by personifying the other extreme. The unworldly intelligence, the wry sense of humour, his tremendous resilience against adversity – and such a mind in such a body!

It perhaps suited Hawking that the media were content with the cliché – he gave little impression of caring for the touchy-feely.

I approached this book with some trepidation. You know he won’t go wrong with cosmology, relativity or quantum mechanics, but when Hawking stepped outside that comfort zone the results were often touch and go.

The scientific essays included in this book supply Hawking’s Greatest Hits … Hawking, as fellow cosmologist and long-time friend Kip Thorne outlines in his introduction, helped to integrate some of the central concepts of physics: general relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and information theory. It is a phenomenal body of work.

Sometimes there is a plainness to his prose that is touching even when it sounds like a self-help manual: “Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.” His plea for inspirational teaching, his concerns about climate change and environmental degradation, his contempt for Trump and the regressive aspects of Brexit and his championing of the UK’s National Health Service, made you glad to have Hawking on your side.

There’s no doubt that Hawking cared passionately about the future of humankind and the potential of science to improve it. His advocacy resembles the old-fashioned boosterism of H G Wells in later life, tempered by an awareness of the dire potential of technologies in the wrong hands.

One of the most striking features of this book, however, is the lack of extracurricular context, from, say art, music, literature, philosophy. In some pieces, this exposes gaps e.g. when Hawking begins an essay called “Is there a God?” with “people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science”. God, he tells us (as no theologian ever did), is all about explaining the origin of the universe.

And on what grounds does he claim that most people define God as “a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship”?

There’s a sloppiness to the history too, even in science.

Hawking was a great scientist who had a remarkable life, and in another universe, without motor neurone disease … we would have no reason to confer authority on his thoughts about all and sundry.

There is every reason to believe Hawking enjoyed his fame, and that’s a cheering thought. That we seek to put him on a pedestal is our problem, not his. We should celebrate his extraordinary achievements, both personal and scientific – but to paraphrase Brecht’s Galileo, unhappy is the land that needs a guru.

* Philip Ball is a science writer. His latest book is Beyond Weird (Bodley Head).


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