TO THE MOON AND BACK
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
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.
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.