Stephen Hawking was one of the most important figures of recent times. His death in 2018 was a significant loss to humanity and his insights into science as a whole will be greatly missed.
His last book before his death, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, is a short but illuminating look into some of the most pressing questions we face as a species today.
These questions range from whether there is a God to whether well be outsmarted by artificial intelligence in the future.
It is a shame that Hawking doesn’t go in-depth on some of these topics, but the fact that the book is brief means he is able to cover more topics.
I really enjoyed this book and it was fascinating to get into insight into Hawking’s mind and find out his position on some of the most important questions of our time.
It’s a shame we will not be able to read any new books from Hawking, which is what makes this one all the more important. If you like to think about big questions, then this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy!
Brief Answers To The Big Questions summary
Takeaway 1 Even someone as smart as Hawking doesn’t have all the answers
One of the satisfying things about reading this book is knowing even some of the cleverest people in the world do not have all the answers.
Hawking answers ten separate questions, but in some of them, he does not know what the correct answer. He gives his best-educated guess.
We tend to think of scientists as being infallible and knowing everything, but it isn’t the case. Science is constantly under revision and new discoveries are made all the time.
Much like the book 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense states, there are a lot of confusing elements to science and sometimes, what appears to be obvious can actually be wrong.
Hawking’s insights are profound and eye-opening but on some of the questions, his answers are a guess. His views on whether there is intelligent life in the universe is telling.
He states that if there was intelligent life nearby to us, it would have visited us by now, so if there is intelligent life out there, it must be far away.
This makes sense when you think about it, but we have no way of knowing whether this is true or not.
This book is a testament to science. Hawking has offered up his views on questions, where he may be right and he may be wrong. That is the beauty of science until we have evidence which provides the answer one way or another, the debate will continue.
Takeaway 2 If we do contact aliens, it may not end well
One of the big questions humanity faces is whether we are the only intelligent life in the universe. We have yet to come into contact with an alien life form, despite radio signals indicating we may have.
As far as we know at this stage, we are alone in the universe. The possibility remains that we will come into contact with other intelligent life, but it may never happen.
What is interesting is Hawking’s thoughts on what would happen if we did come into contact with another intelligent species.
He’s not positive about the outcome!
This is the big unknown in making contact with intelligent life, we have no way of knowing whether they are friendly or not, until the moment that we make contact.
Hawking uses human history as a way of suggesting they may not be friendly. He likens an encounter with another intelligent lifeform as being similar to when the indigenous people in North and South America encountered the Spanish and Europeans.
They weren’t exactly treated well and many thousands of people were slaughtered. Hawking believes this could be a possibility for us if we encountered aliens.
If we were to encounter aliens tomorrow, they would be much more technologically advanced than us. The furthest manned spaceflight has been to the moon and back. We could potentially accomplish interplanetary travel this century, but travelling to the rest of the solar system and interstellar travel is a long way off.
It’s likely any species that contact us in the near future, would be much further down this road than we are. If they are in any hostile, we are doomed.
We will not have the technology to fight them and Hawking believes it would echo the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day rather than Close Encounters of The Third Kind.
Discovering we are not the only intelligent lifeform in the universe will be a momentous day for humanity, but it could also be one of the last moments of humanity if those lifeforms intentions are hostile.
Takeaway 3 Hawking isn’t positive about humanity’s prospects
Much like his views on contacting other intelligent lifeforms, Hawking’s views on whether humanity will survive on Earth are bleak too.
The simple answer to whether we will survive on Earth is of course, no. In the long run, the Earth will become uninhabitable when the Sun starts to age and expand. However, this is millions of years away.
The more pressing concerns are the threats we face now, of which there are many.
An asteroid strike would be catastrophic for humanity. If an asteroid, similar in size to the one which struck 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, collided with Earth, we would be toast.
Thankfully, the likelihood of that eventuality is not high.
Unfortunately, there are many more threats which are more probable and just as destructive closer to home. Perhaps, the most pertinent is runaway climate change.
Hawking is scathing about the threat of climate change and what it may lead to. When you read what he has to say on the matter, it hits home just how much danger we are in.
If global warming becomes self-sustaining, which it may already have done, then we are in big trouble. The melting of the polar ice caps will increase, which reduces the amount of sunlight reflected back into space, while the Amazon and other rainforests could be killed off.
Hawking’s prognosis for what might happen is not great and he likens the end result to the conditions on Venus. That is a future that none of us wants!
Hawking states that he believes it’s inevitable that a nuclear confrontation or environmental catastrophe will cripple the Earth in the next 1,000 years! That is a big statement and one that should focus minds on the issues we face.
He offers one crumb of comfort which is that he hopes we will have left the confines of the Earth by this point, but given the progress we have made since we put a man on the moon, a big leap will be needed to reach this point.
It’s worrying that Hawking believes humanity is at risk, but it should also force us to consider how vulnerable we are and start making inroads into ensuring our survival instead of our mutual destruction at some point in the future.
Brief Answers to The Big Questions review
This Brief Answers to The Big Questions, summary takes a brief look at some of the issues that Hawking discusses in the book.
The book delves into many more problems that are among the most important of our times.
It’s interesting to read Hawking’s thoughts on these matters. He’s undoubtedly one of the cleverest people to have ever lived and yet, he’s able to explain ideas in this book with relative simplicity.
These are questions that plague many of us and hearing Hawking’s thoughts on these matters is eye-opening.
What’s striking about the book, as I mentioned in my third point, is that even someone of Hawking’s stature doesn’t have all the answers.
He’s under no illusions that he can’t answer some questions and can only offer his best educated guess.
It’s important to appreciate this when reading the book. It’s a lesson that we should be humble in the face of science, and despite how much we do know, there is a lot more that we don’t.
Who should read Brief Answers to The Big Questions?
Anyone with an interest in science should read this book. The questions that Hawking discusses are pertinent and his ideas will be illuminating to many.
If you want to get a basic understanding of the important topics of the day, the book is a good read too. I came away a lot more knowledgeable than I was before.