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
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