Time travel, black holes… and Star Trek?

Stephen Hawk­ing’s thoughts on God and AI pale in com­par­i­son to his sci­en­tific in­sight, writes Jonathan But­ter­worth

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

Brief An­swers to the Big Ques­tions Stephen Hawk­ing

John Mur­ray, £14.99, pp256

Brief An­swers… col­lects the thoughts and writ­ings of Stephen Hawk­ing on 10 “big ques­tions”. These range from mat­ters firmly within the realm of the­o­ret­i­cal physics – What is in­side a black hole? Is time travel pos­si­ble? – to far be­yond, ad­dress­ing the ex­is­tence of God, the rise of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and the sur­vival of hu­man­ity. The­o­ret­i­cal physics is, of course, where Hawk­ing made his out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions; to read the thoughts of such a mind on other mat­ters should be stim­u­lat­ing.

As the pub­lisher notes, the book was un­der way be­fore Hawk­ing’s death in March, and was com­pleted in col­lab­o­ra­tion with his aca­demic col­leagues, his fam­ily and his es­tate. I’m not sure who of those peo­ple had an over­all view of the vol­ume, but I do wish it had been more tightly edited. In a col­lec­tion of es­says or tran­scripts, some rep­e­ti­tion is un­der­stand­able, but I ex­pected a co­her­ent set of ar­gu­ments. I stum­bled, then, when the same ex­pla­na­tions and even phrases reap­peared with­out ac­knowl­edg­ment that the reader had seen them pre­vi­ously. And there are far too many men­tions of Star Trek. Clearly it was Hawk­ing’s point of ref­er­ence for a vi­sion of hu­man­ity’s fu­ture, but we’re never told why he felt it so rel­e­vant.

To ad­dress im­por­tant, com­pli­cated ideas in sim­ple lan­guage, as Hawk­ing does in this book, is dif­fi­cult, but he has a lu­cid style that is re­fresh­ingly un­pre­ten­tious. Of­ten, though, he sim­pli­fies the con­cepts as well as the lan­guage, go­ing be­yond the point at which sub­stance is lost. Frankly, it comes across as naive in places – an im­pres­sion not helped by scat­tered, throw­away com­ments about Brexit, Trump, the Mid­dle East, and the gen­eral po­lit­i­cal stu­pid­ity of hu­mans. While I share his stance on such mat­ters, it grates that he makes no at­tempt to per­suade or jus­tify.

It is not so much preach­ing to the choir as shar­ing know­ing asides with them.

As such, Brief An­swers to the Big Ques­tions feels like a missed op­por­tu­nity. Hawk­ing’s be­lief in the value of in­tel­li­gent col­lec­tive en­deav­our, be it in space ex­plo­ration, Euro­pean co­op­er­a­tion or the NHS, was well known, and I would love to have seen him tackle op­pos­ing views head-on. In the­o­ret­i­cal physics, such ar­gu­ments take place in the lan­guage of math­e­mat­ics and stand or fall de­pen­dent upon data. On the ev­i­dence of this book, the tools of Hawk­ing’s trade don’t trans­late be­yond it.

The ti­tle works best, then, as a brief in­tro­duc­tion to his ex­cit­ing ideas. And there are some gems, some mo­ments where an idea is crys­tallised with great clar­ity. I had not ap­pre­ci­ated that, in a world of mul­ti­di­men­sional pos­si­bil­i­ties, there are rea­sons why three spa­tial di­men­sions may be the only num­ber in which in­tel­li­gent life could arise. There is a mas­terly aside on the un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple, with the clear­est ex­pla­na­tion of com­ple­men­tary vari­ables (such as po­si­tion and mo­men­tum) I have ever read. “No one per­son can be the mas­ter of more than a small cor­ner of hu­man knowl­edge”, writes Hawk­ing, but, my good­ness, he masters his cor­ner – and it isn’t such a small one.

If Brief An­swers to the Big Ques­tions is a “best of” col­lec­tion for fans, Hawk­ing had sev­eral great hits. But it is badly remixed and in­cludes a few shaky live ver­sions – not the de­fin­i­tive work he de­serves. I hope, with a bit more dis­tance and de­tail, such a col­lec­tion will one day be pro­duced.

Jonathan But­ter­worth is pro­fes­sor of physics at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don. To or­der Brief An­swers to the Big Ques­tions for £11.49 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

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