Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking – review

Back in the Guardian (well, the Observer actually) with a review of Stephen Hawking’s final book .


A couple of paragraphs didn’t make the edit; no complaints from me about that, but I put them here mainly for the sake of Fredric Brown:

The book probably works best as a brief introduction to Hawking’s exciting ideas for a new reader; though it is peculiar that there is no bibliography to follow up on. In fact there’s a curiously isolated feel to it, with a paucity of external acknowledgement. For example, one of his answers draws on a science fiction short story I read as a teenager. A civilisation constructs a supercomputer to answer the question “Is there is a God?” Having first ensured that it can’t be switched off, the computer answers unhesitatingly “There is now”. I recognised the trope, but there is no clue here where it came from; Fredric Brown’s short story “Answer”, an online search informed me. At another point, the apparently unironical use of the phrase “brave new world” leaves Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley drifting beyond the event horizon. Perhaps such omissions are a feature of the sad termination of his own work on the book, but I think an editor could and should have added context.

Hawking quotes Hamlet (with acknowledgement) “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space”. As ever with Shakespeare, there is more than one way to read that.

About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Guardian Science and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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One Response to Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking – review

  1. Tim Short says:

    I would be more harsh here. Hawking was no doubt a good physicist but he suffered from scope problems. Physics is an unparalleled approach to its correct domain but that domain is not unlimited. I have seen Hawking proclaim that modern physics makes philosophy obsolete before proceeding to do it badly. I have seen a Nobel prize winning scientist talk about “the method of doubt” without mentioning Descartes. I fear you have detected more of this one dimensionality here.

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