- - Monday, February 4, 2019

BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS

By Stephen Hawking

Bantam Books/Penguin Random House, $25, 256 pages

Stephen Hawking was one of the world’s greatest scientists. He battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for more than 50 years, and produced groundbreaking work in physics, cosmology and popular science. His book, “A Brief History of Time” (1988), which sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years, made him a household name — along with TV appearances on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Simpsons.”

Hawking’s final book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions,” was in development before he passed away last March. It pulls together some of his responses to queries he received about science and religion. He was fascinating, witty and controversial, and often made you think about your personal beliefs, even if he never succeeded in changing your mind.



The book’s first question starts things off with a (big) bang, “Is there a God?”

Hawking, an atheist, felt the universe “was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” He agreed with Albert Einstein that the three ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook,” matter, energy and space, should be reduced to the latter two. In turn, space and energy were “spontaneously invented” during the Big Bang, producing equal amounts of positive and negative energy — which is, when combined in mathematics, equal to zero. “If the universe adds up to nothing,” he writes, “then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

Are you intrigued or mortified by his assessment? This is the type of thought-provoking, blood-boiling and vein-popping analysis one can expect in “Brief Answers to the Big Questions.”

For instance, he wondered if there’s other intelligent life in our universe.

While Hawking “discounts suggestions that UFOs contain beings from outer space,” he theorized why Earth hasn’t been visited. One possibility is we’re the only planet where life occurred. Another possibility is while “there was a reasonable probability of forming self-reproducing systems, like cells, but that most of these forms of life did not evolve intelligence.”

Perhaps asteroids or comets crashed into other planets, preventing intelligent life from developing. Maybe intelligent life “destroys itself,” which would be a very pessimistic outlook on our existence. Ultimately, he preferred to believe “there are other forms of intelligent life out there, but that we have been overlooked.”

The author also examines the possibility of time travel.

In his estimation, “all we need for time travel is a spaceship that will go faster than light.” No such vessel currently exists, and Einstein’s 1905 paper on rocket power seemed to rule it out. But the physicist suggested the possibility of finding a way to “warp space-time so much that we created a little tube or wormhole.”

While the classical laws of creating a warp in the universe prevent time travel, quantum theory’s uncertainty principle could adjust the position and speed of particles and potentially create fluctuations. If we find a way to warp space travel, we may actually be able to visit the past and future. With this in mind, he believed “rapid space travel and travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding.”

As well, Hawking muses whether artificial intelligence (AI) will one day “outsmart us.”

He recognized that while “success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history,” the concern remains “that AI would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate.” Indeed, its short-term impact “depends on who controls it” while its long-term impact would be determined by “whether it can be controlled at all.”

He believed there are ways to utilize AI effectively, including to “help reverse paralysis in people with spinal-cord injuries,” but there’s always a risk in manipulating a person’s DNA. The future of communication will be with “brain-computer interfaces,” in his view, which could occur through electrodes or implants. This would obviously be risky in both respects, but if we could “connect a human brain to the internet it will have all of Wikipedia as its resource.”

Hence, AI could be one of the biggest boons or menaces to modern society.

In the book’s final paragraph, Mr. Hawking tells readers to “remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” We should always “be curious” about the universe, and to “unleash your imagination” and “shape your future.” Let’s hope his profound parting words, or Hawking’s last stand, is something all of us can readily agree with.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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