Saturday, August 31, 2013

Stephen Hawking's Black Holes And Baby Universes and other essays - Review

A few days back, I got into an online debate with a random girl in a Facebook community. She had mentioned that this is the age of Science, and while Science is taking human life forward at an unimaginable pace, speculative Philosophers are just a hindrance to human progress. I replied with the speculation that a lot of what Science says could turn out to be wrong.  This started a fierce discussion that went on for quite long, and I was barely able to defend the powerful arguments she kept throwing at me, until the community admin removed the post for "digression". The takeaway from that experience was this : if she is right, Science is very close to finding an answer to The Life, The Universe and Everything in It, and that it would not be 42.

Stephen Hawking's "Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays" published by Bantam Books is a collection of essays and speeches by Stephen Hawking during different times in his career, and like a cherry on top, it includes his 1992 interview with BBC Radio. Like the girl I got into an argument with, Stephen Hawking believes that we are very close to solving the puzzle of the Universe. He sets the tone in the introduction itself, with the words

"The scientific articles in this volume were written in the belief that the universe is governed by an order that we can perceive partially  now and that we may understand fully in the not-too-distant future. It may be that this hope is just a mirage; there may be no ultimate theory, and even if there is, we may not be able to find it. But it is surely better to strive for a complete understanding than to despair of the human mind."

In the first two essays, "Childhood" and "Oxford and Cambridge", Hawking tells us briefly about the first few years of his life, and he makes it out as unremarkable. One feature of Hawking's writing throughout the book is that he maintains a largely impersonal tone, with an occasional sense of humour. This aloof attitude of his writing is further highlighted in his third essay (which is actually a speech transcript) - "My Experience with ALS". This speech transcript describing Stephen Hawking's unfortunate medical condition and its effect on him should arguably be the most attractive piece in the collection, given our morbid curiosity over other people's lives. But Hawking uses an unemotional tone, and describes the events alone. He concludes this speech making an effort to give all his listeners hope with the words

"I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work. This is thanks to the help I have received from my wife, my children and a large number of other people and organizations. I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly that is often the case. It shows that one need not lose hope."

In the next two essays "Public Attitudes Towards Science" and "A Brief History of A Brief  History", Hawking explains his belief that the public should be aware of the latest advancements in Science, and his own effort in making this possible by writing his most famous book - "A Brief History of Time".  Hawking does not ignore the fact that though the book may be a best-seller, a lot of people use it to just adorn their bookshelves as a status symbol (The book lies untouched in my own bookshelf for about 7 years now. Note to self : Soon).

Starting with the  speech transcript "My Position", where he temporarily lets go his composure and indulges in a self-confessed harsh attack on Philosophers ("They are not in touch with the present frontier of Physics"), the next few essays get into real Physics. Though I couldn't understand the Physics part completely, I could get the broad ideas pretty well. This is largely due the fact that owing to their independent by-themselves nature of the essays, Hawking gives a general idea of the same concepts multiple times throughout the collection.

The final interview - "Desert Island Discs : An Interview" - is a delightful read. As a part of this very interesting show hosted at BBC Radio, the interviewer (Sue Lawley) manages to bring out different aspects to the very incidents that we encountered though Hawking's own words. For example, in answer to a question, Hawking explains the feeling of hopelessness on discovery of his medical condition better than he does in his own speech. A more musically inclined person than me would even take the chance to approve (or disapprove) of Hawking's taste in music. However my personal favorite in the whole collection is the essay titled "Is Everything Determined?", where armed with no emperical data to support him Hawking  himself indulges in what he accuses the Philosophers of being guilty of - speculation. Touching over concepts of a pre-determined destiny, and the moral culpability of human actions in a pre-destined Universe, Hawking lets himself go (with an ironic sense of humour).

On the whole, "Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays" is a very good read (at least for a scientifically non-inclined person like me). Hawking's writing is good and to the point, and his sense of mild humour ensures that all is not dull. Regardless of your agreement or disagreement (as in my case) with the statement from the book's Introduction I have quoted above, I would suggest that you go for this one.

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