“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Stephen Hawking in his final book, Brief Answer to The Big Questions.
This compelling paragraph was the last sentences in Stephen Hawking’s final book. The book in its totality pulls at the heartstring; and for the first time, Stephen Hawking appeared accessible; accessible to mean, it was easy to feel his relevance and appreciate why we (at least the common to the middle-class member of society) should listen. To me, his ideas better served the science fiction community, except this one. And chewing on the content, it became evident the reason; the beauty and depth of his reasoning. The book was brilliant in every form. But I have reservations on whether or not the book answered the “big questions” it set out to address.
Further to a brief biographic introduction, the book dives into the question “Is there a God?”. To which the book boldly answers confidently a resounding No! In alignment with the theory of the Big Bang, the book explains the possibility of the universe appearing, literally out of thin air. Standard elements like the Higgs Boston particles started the big bang. And this explosion produced enormous positive energy. Laws of physics dictate that energy can neither be created nor destroyed but translated into other forms, thus negative energy emerged to counter the existences of positive energy and maintain the balance that mathematically adds up to nothing. This negative energy produced the multiple dimensions which define our location, time, the universe and also, us.
The book discusses some recurring themes in Stephen Hawking’s writings like a black hole, his view on artificial intelligence and time travel.
A black hole is a star whose gravitational force exceeds the escape velocity of light from it, thus resulting in an implosion of mass inward and could theoretically serve as a shortcut between two points in space.
Stephen Hawking isn’t a fan of unrestrained artificial intelligence. If our progress in computing continues to obey Moore’s laws, that is processing capacity doubling every 18 months, we should expect intelligence capacities that can overrun that of humans, and even seek its independence from the reigns of humanity’s control. His view was that energies should be focused on acquiring the wisdom that can always regulate the capacity of the machine. To quote the book, it states “Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins”.
On time travel, the discussion highlighted string theory and interestingly the idea of eleven dimensions. A dimension is a unit of measure that can help in identifying the location of an object. From the human paradigm, objects are observable when situated in the dimensions of length, width, and height (3 spatial dimensions) and (as proposed by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) time. So in other words, the exact location of an item is its position in space and time. Following that logic suggests one can travel through time to access the exact location of an object. But to move along the time spectrum of dimensionality, an object must be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It is possible we will never accomplish that. Stephen Hawking humorously tested this by sending out invitations to a party he organised a day after, as it will be only time travelers that can attend an event when notified after the fact. Suffice to say he was disappointed as no one turned up.
I found interesting the reasoning behind other life form existing in the other parts of the universe. Life emerged on planets that presented the right conditions. And these conditions were explored to understand the possibility of life form emerging from a combination of other natural elements. But a fascinating conclusion was for life forms to be established, the life form would need time to develop the intelligence for preserving their species, controlling their immediate environment, procreating and also the promulgating of their customs. And doing that requires enabling external factors like optimal proximity to a star, and security from space objects (good examples are the asteroids that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago).
Thinking of extinction from a future asteroid or nuclear annihilation sparked by our reptilian decision-making tendencies, led to some dark ideas around opportunities in space colonisation. Humanity must strive to preserve the “light of consciousness” by putting it some of its offsprings into hospitable regions of space. His thinking proposes an interesting survival strategy for humanity that I can summarise to involve:
- traveling to new planets;
- understanding and deploying the planet’s natural resources;
- building the capacity to hop to a new planet if faced with an existential threat.
He felt that encapsulated in the quest for space colonisation should be the honing of skills to address contemporary challenges. The world is changing very fast, and survival rests only on the prepared. Current advancement in science and technology suggest that we might be able to colonise Mars in the next 50 years and within the next 200 years, places like Proxima b (the exoplanet 40 trillion km away, believed to possess similar conditions as earth to support our carbon-based life) would be within our reach.
It was evident the clarity of perspective in everything, but the book failed to address its stated topic; it failed to provide the answers to the big questions. Yes, we got a brief description of many interesting concepts, but on answers, I am not sure I can say the same. According to the historian Yuval Noah in his book “Sapiens”, what gave Homosapiens an advantage over other humanoids, remained our ability to weave stories. Stories are relevant because it places the audience in the context of what is being narrated, and by that enables them to act with an enriched view. Accessing that enriched view requires a complete understanding of what the story is trying to convey: and getting that understanding is by asking why. Why is what enables the audience to appreciate the core idea within the story and therefore are liberated to a new paradigm in understanding. Stephen Hawking proposed we find other planets to survive on, but he never really answer why we need to survive.
Humans are flawed as a species. If we are to evaluate humanity from a purely rational perspective, one will conclude that our civilisation shouldn’t be exported to other planets.
- We use insignificant attributes like genitals, colour of the skin, or belief system as reasons to segment our societies or annihilate possible allies;
- our various revolutions led to the extinction of over 322 animals, birds, and reptiles by 2014;
- our resource extraction activities are some of the prominent reasons behind the current global warming trends and extremities in natural disasters.
From the perspective of an atheist like Stephen Hawking, I would have expected a more out of the box suggestion especially on artificial intelligence and humanity’s stance for survival. Maybe a recommendation that reads like something out of a science fiction novel, like the merging of human and machine to create the perfect archetype for a new world. A being who activities enhance the world for future generations. A being free from the (to quote Tyler Durden in the movie fight club) “all singing, all dancing crap of the world” trapping humanity has evolved to become. But the book’s could not go along such paths because even Stephen Hawking admitted that despite our flaws, there must be something very important about us.
There is something in us; some intrinsic experiences and so innate; something we cannot explain yet we know it is there. In the movie Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) was in a court hearing to defend the huge investment made into a project to reach out to aliens. The project upon completion produced no visible result but provided her with some rich experience. In her defense, she made this remarkable statement that sums up some aspect of humanity that we cannot codify yet:
“ I had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves and we are not are alone”
Maybe that something we belong to is wrapped up in the higher dimensions (suggested by string theory) that are outside the realms of human consciousness. That something that flares up a variety of impulses and makes us believe that we can literally move mountains. This to me is evidence that we are a creation of something that resides outside the realms of our consciousness and the known universe. The creator might not be in the image we know or are capable of understanding, but the creator is there.
Alister McGrath, the physicist turned priest commented during a talk show that science only explains what we see but fails to tell us why. As a side note, I think science should restraint from the null hypothesis that there is no God, rather be open to possibilities there is. At the end of days, all we know might lead us to conclude that there really is no God. But instead of jumping to that conclusion early and making miserable of many lives, let humanity focus the tool called science on the thing we need it for: which is improving the human condition through the understanding and manipulation of natural elements.
The book wasn’t robust enough to address really big questions like the origins of consciousness, the location of the mind or if we can even transplant minds. Because if minds evolved from tangible events like the big bang, there must be tangible human organs that explains its workings. The book rather was an expose of the brilliance of Stephen Hawking that lingered, even till death. It highlighted how science can be used to shape our world and some very crucial ideas humanity should be pondering on for its survival. But most of all, I think the book was the last stance of a man who despite all physical limitations, was able to live a long productive and fulfilling life.
Rest in Peace Stephen Hawking. We hope for the courage to stare at the stars, and not at our feet.