An editor’s review: Brief answers to the big questions, Stephen Hawking

I’ll be the first to admit that I hated science at school. And when I say hated, I mean that I’d actively avoid it if I could find a locker to hide behind. It didn’t help that my physics teacher was flat-out mean and terrifying, my chemistry teacher had a voice only dogs could hear, and my biology teacher blushed when discussing anything remotely related to the human body. My dislike of science continued into adulthood, where even basic scientific concepts eluded me. In short, it would be fair to say that I’m not scientifically minded in the slightest.

As such, it took me almost a year to read Brief Answers to the Big Questions. In fact, the first time I started this book, I gave up on it. I struggled to wrap my head around the notions, so I put the book down for six months and decided to try again in 2020. This time, I completed it. Taking it one question at a time, I found Hawking’s explanations of complicated and often mind-blowing concepts straightforward and simple enough to understand—particularly in the analogies he uses. I found myself, surprisingly, getting to grips with black holes and space travel.

With a background in philosophy, I was particularly interested in questions such as “Is there a god?” and “How do we shape the future?” Hawking’s answers to these questions may not be popular with many people, but they’re certainly worth considering. While he rightly warns us about the risks of technology growth and ‘conscious’ AI, and ruining the planet through global warming or nuclear war, the book is—perhaps surprisingly—extremely hopeful and forward-looking in terms of humankind’s future. The question is: will we end up living in space as Hawking suggests, or have we left it too late before we kill the planet or ourselves?

Each question is self-contained, meaning you can read the questions that appeal to you. Of course, this naturally leads to some repetition of ideas and concepts, but not so much that is becomes annoying. In fact, in the complexity of discussing potential past histories, black holes, and alien life, a small amount of repetition is actually helpful, rather than patronising or frustrating like it would usually be.

If I had one criticism of this book, it’s a minor one. Every chapter includes fun “mini questions” towards the end of the chapter. For some unfathomable reason, these mini questions appear mid-text (sometimes mid-sentence) on the second-to-last page of each chapter. Why would a publisher think it’s a good idea to break the flow of a chapter with a text box? It’s a serious hinderance to readability. Especially when the mini questions could have been included at the end of the chapter, in the more logical place, instead. However, it’s a small criticism and of course not Hawking’s fault.

On the whole, I would call this book a resounding success. For those who want to know more about the universe but don’t have a strong understanding of science, Hawking manages to take a complex topic and make it feel comprehensible. For those who love science, it takes you to the boundaries of this universe and beyond, into the past and the future, and even into quantum physics. Brief answers they may be, but they are also inordinately huge.

Stephen Hawking left this mortal coil before the book was published, unfortunately making this his last book (albeit my first exploration into his writing). His impact on our understanding of time and space cannot be overstated—and for that, he deserves enormous thanks. It’s 5 stars from me.