Review: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

In my high school, the hard sciences were taught by grade: 10th grade Biology, 11th grade Chemistry, and 12th grade Physics. I was most drawn to physics, both in its proximity to mathematics but also in its expansive theories that seek to understand no less than the universe itself. I even considered minoring in astrophysics as a college freshman1.

A large part of what made astrophysics and cosmology so fascinating is its accessibility, particularly outside of the classroom. Back then, I read and reread Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace; they introduced complex ideas—backed by world-class mathematical and academic rigor—in layman terms using simple analogies, drawn from everyday experiences. In fact, the field has featured a number of prominent physicists who possess the gift of making the mind-bendingly complex easily understandable: from Richard Feynman to Carl Sagan to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Which brings us to Brief Answers to the Big Questions, the posthumous book from Stephen Hawking that summarizes some of his most recent work before his death in 2018. In much the same vein as his earlier writings, he first frames the scope to be massive, but then works backwards from that problem statement to try to answer it, sprinkling various stories and personal anecdotes and past works along the way. Certainly some of the topics can be dry, but Hawking does a good job in keeping the explanations lively.

What I appreciate most about Hawking’s writings in general—Brief Answers is exemplary—is the empathy he shows to his audience. He doesn’t mind reiterating who Heisenberg was and explain his uncertainty principle, so that he can build up to an eventual answer logically from such axioms. From important events in physics history to metaphors for implications of theoretical physics equations to items in the news during the time he wrote these essays, Hawking goes the extra mile for his readers who he knows may not have the background. Again, it creates a level of accessibility that welcomes all readers2.

The book does stumble a little when Hawking ventures outside his domains of expertise, when he asks about the ramifications of AI and what the future of civilization brings. Some interpret these inclusions as arrogance, but I take it more as just leveraging a captive audience and bringing important issues to the forefront—akin to how celebrities can take on important causes and raise awareness.

Brief Answers is a short read, and while it does try to tackle some pretty big ideas, the prose is not as dense as you may expect given the (wide) breadth and (narrow) length. The true value of the book is perhaps less the title’s suggestion of answers, but how the supplemental background and context and understanding raises, to the reader, additional questions.

  1. My advisor suggested that I drop that idea in light of the workload that came with a major in Computer Science; I still somewhat regret listening to that advice.

  2. Particularly, in contrast to the opaqueness of the hard sciences in general.

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