TO THE MOON AND BACK

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he ar­gues that we may find “many other forms of life in the gal­axy, but we are un­likely to find in­tel­li­gent life”, sav­ing the punch for the end. “Meet­ing a more ad­vanced civ­i­liza­tion, at our present stage, might be a bit like the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of Amer­ica meet­ing Colum­bus—and I don’t think they were bet­ter off for it.”

In the 30 years since writ­ing his in­ter­na­tional best-seller A Brief His­tory Of Time (1988), Hawk­ing had the op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness some of the most stag­ger­ing ad­vance­ments in sci­ence, such as the build­ing of the world’s largest par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor in CERN, which cap­tured the Higgs-bo­son, a par­ti­cle smaller than an atom that had hitherto only in­hab­ited the realm of math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions. Many phe­nom­ena con­ceived by the great­est minds in the­o­ret­i­cal physics, which had long ex­isted as el­e­gant equa­tions, are now demon­stra­bly proved. Ein­stein’s the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, Pen­rose’s work in cos­mol­ogy, and Heisen­berg’s Un­cer­tainty Prin­ci­ple have been sub­jected to ex­per­i­ments that were hard to think up even half a cen­tury ago. For Hawk­ing, then, the next log­i­cal step to his work in Brief An­swers To The Big Ques­tions:

By Stephen Hawk­ing, John Mur­ray,

256 pages, ₹650. as­tro­physics was “to ex­plore the so­lar sys­tem to find out where hu­mans could live”.

In sev­eral chap­ters, Hawk­ing makes an im­pas­sioned case for the need to find other plan­ets to in­habit be­cause life on earth, sub­ject to all the depre­da­tions of hu­man greed and avarice, isn’t go­ing to last in­fin­itely. One of Hawk­ing’s staunch­est be­liefs, there­fore, was that “the hu­man race is not go­ing to have a fu­ture if we don’t go into space”. In­ter­stel­lar travel, he be­lieved, would be a re­al­ity in the next 200-500 years, if the sci­en­tific and en­trepreneurial com­mu­ni­ties pooled in their minds and re­sources. His own de­light in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing weight­less­ness for a few mo­ments, in spite of his de­bil­i­tat­ing mo­tor neu­ron dis­ease, was a pas­sion­ate af­fir­ma­tion of his hopes and be­liefs for such a fu­ture.

Space travel, for Hawk­ing, wasn’t just an op­por­tu­nity to ex­tend the ter­ri­to­rial claim of hu­mans on the uni­verse. It was a project that equal­ized us all. “When we see the earth from space, we see our­selves as a whole,” he wrote. “We see the unity, and not the di­vi­sions. It is such a sim­ple image with a com­pelling mes­sage; one planet, one hu­man race.”

From ‘In­ter­stel­lar Afro­tourism’ to a jour­ney into the far­thest reaches of the uni­verse, here’s a read­ing list to stir your grey cells

BINTI

Win­ner of the Hugo and Ne­bula Awards for Best Novella in 2015-16, Binti is the first ma­jor work of sci­ence fic­tion to fea­ture a fe­male African pro­tag­o­nist. Set in a fu­ture when in­ter­ga­lac­tic travel is a re­al­ity, this novel (the first of a tril­ogy) by Nige­rian author Nnedi Oko­rafor traces the jour­ney of a young woman named Binti who leaves home to study at a pres­ti­gious in­ter­ga­lac­tic univer­sity—the first of her race to do so. The book, which has been de­scribed as “In­ter­stel­lar Afro­fu­tur­ism”, tells a sci-fi ad­ven­ture story while sub­tly dis­man­tling ideas of race and cul­tural iden­tity.

AS­TRO­PHYSICS FOR PEO­PLE IN A HURRY

This best-sell­ing book is a col­lec­tion of as­tro­physi­cist Neil de­grasse Tyson’s es­says an­swer­ing ques­tions that of­ten puz­zle us: What is the na­ture of space and time? How im­por­tant are we in the uni­ver­sal scheme of things? (an­swer: not very). Al­though writ­ten in Tyson’s trade­mark wry, ac­ces­si­ble style (“The uni­verse is un­der no obli­ga­tion to make sense to you”), be warned that this book is not “As­tro­physics for Dum­mies” and you will need to ex­er­cise your brain (and in­ter­net search skills) to grasp the mon­u­men­tal con­cepts Tyson touches upon.

PACK­ING FOR MARS: THE CU­RI­OUS SCI­ENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID

In this quirky and atyp­i­cal book about space col­o­niza­tion, Mary Roach ap­proaches the sub­ject from a func­tional, util­i­tar­ian per­spec­tive with chap­ters that dis­cuss hu­man bod­ily func­tions in space (go­ing to the loo, hav­ing sex, vom­it­ing) but also those that nav­i­gate deeper wa­ters: How much can hu­mans give up? How do as­tro­nauts cope with pro­longed iso­la­tion? This is as close to the “a towel is the most im­por­tant item a Hitch­hiker can carry” kind of ad­vice that an ac­tual book on space travel can give.

THE EX­PANSE SE­RIES

This is the space saga of re­cent years, in book or film, with metic­u­lous, vivid world-build­ing and bang-on pol­i­tics. Writ­ten by Daniel Abra­ham and Ty Franck, who use the joint pseu­do­nym “James S.A. Corey”, The Ex­panse is set hun­dreds of years in the fu­ture when hu­man­ity has col­o­nized prac­ti­cally the en­tire so­lar sys­tem, and a new hi­er­ar­chy has emerged— Mars is a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal en­tity while the as­teroid belt is an ex­ploited colony where hu­mans (“Bel­ters”) have de­vel­oped a dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal­ity be­cause of gen­er­a­tions spent in zero grav­ity. The sci­ence is solid and the sto­ry­telling fab­u­lous.

RED MOON

This sci-fi novel takes place in 2047, a mere 30 years in the fu­ture, and is a re­al­is­tic de­pic­tion of what liv­ing in the time of space travel will mean for us. In the book, the moon has been col­o­nized by China and quan­tum en­gi­neer Fred Fred­er­icks is trav­el­ling there for the first time with Ta Shu, a celebrity travel re­porter. There’s a mur­der in this book, a po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, an ex­plo­ration of Chi­nese cul­ture, and an in­trigu­ing life-on-luna per­spec­tive from one of the most imag­i­na­tive con­tem­po­rary sci-fi writ­ers.

(clock­wise, from left) A file photo of physi­cist and cos­mol­o­gist Stephen Hawk­ing; and stills from the movie ‘The­ory Of Ev­ery­thing’, where Hawk­ing was por­trayed by English ac­tor Ed­die Red­mayne.

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