Last thoughts on a range of topics, taken from the extraordinary career of Stephen Hawking; and abridged for radio by Katrin Williams:
First of all he recalls his upbringing and his youthful research work, enabling him to say: 'I am a scientist with a deep fascination with physics, cosmology, the universe and the future of humanity."
The chapters are written in the first person, as if entirely penned by Hawking. No, he did not write this book alone in his final months, painstakingly, word by word using the twitches of his cheek and his computer program. But the words are mostly his, and the ideas and spirit are definitely his, full of self-deprecating wit and the fun he had taking readers with him on the scientific adventures he loved.
Hawking's colleagues, friends and family, labouring out of deep respect for him, have produced a splendid book. Enjoy it, learn from it, and regret that it is Hawking's last.
And here we reach the slightly perplexing nature of this book. It was “in development” at the time of Hawking’s death, and has been pulled together from speeches, interviews and essays. It’s unclear where Hawking’s words end, and where the voice of colleagues, collaborators, family and the Stephen Hawking Estate begins.
This is perhaps why it feels incoherent at times. Each chapter is written as a stand-alone answer to a “big question”, with no reference to near-identical material that appears in other answers. As a result, the concept of quantum uncertainty is introduced several times, while DNA is introduced twice, with jarringly similar phrasings...So read it – and do read it – in the spirit he would have meant it. Not as some last opportunity to glean profound truths from the oracle, but as one remarkable human being sharing his thoughts, hopes and fears with another.
...our time on Earth as a species, he warns, is fast running out... It is a poignant idea, coming from a man who lived far longer than was expected and who communicated, at the end, using the merest facial twitches to drive a speech synthesiser. And it is that ultra-distinctive voice (modest, profound, sometimes very funny) that knits this book together... It needs to, because it feels like a hasty edit. There are repetitions, and some science that should have been updated (the 2015 detection of gravitational waves, for example, is missing). And the tone is uneven. Hawking sometimes sounds like a guest speaker at morning assembly (“you all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted, or expected, and to think big”) and sometimes like the boundary-pushing, mind-stretching scientist he was. This can cause problems. I defy any non-physicist to understand Supertranslation Hair (one of Hawking’s final contributions to the science of black holes) based only on what is offered here...
Hawking’s gift for vivid scientific storytelling is beautifully employed throughout: there is a terrific explanation of why exactly we live in three big dimensions of space, rather than two, four, or more, as well as exactly how time travel is allowed by the equations of relativity, and whether we could ever find out what is inside a black hole.... This beautiful little book is a fitting last twinkle from a new star in the firmament above.
Those who followed Hawking the writer after 1988 will find much that seems familiar. For those readers who invested in A Brief History and perhaps never quite finished it, there is good news: almost everything in Brief Answers is effortlessly instructive, absorbing, up to the minute and – where it matters – witty ...People who argue for good education for all, a decently funded NHS and serious investment in research will rediscover him as a friend
Of course, there’s lots we don’t know about the origin of the universe, but it strikes me that we’re privileged to live in an age where we can have such a good stab at an answer. In another era, emperors would have paid vast fortunes to know these mysteries. You can find out for £14.99. Hawking’s slim book is a good introduction — but there’s not an awful lot of detail.