I’ve recently watched the newest hit Don’t Look Up on Netflix and it has easily become one of my favorite science fiction films. Released late in 2021, it tells the story of two astronomers trying to warn humanity of an approaching comet that will wipe out humankind. It is a disaster satire and an allegory for the indifference of various social institutions toward the climate crisis. It’s entertaining but also profound, and I’d definitely recommend everyone to watch it.
But beyond the satire and hilarity, the film also rekindled my interest in science, particularly in astronomy. It also reminded me that I have several titles on the subject just lying on the shelf and waiting to be read. Apart from my interest in history, I’ve always been fascinated by science and the big questions it’s trying to answer. That’s why we also allot shelf space for astronomy and other science books here at the #BibiMangkiBookbed Library.
So for this month’s WFSR, I’m sharing about the classic popular science book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. First published in 1988, the book is intended for general readers who have no or little knowledge of physics or astronomy but are interested in learning some fascinating things about it.
Picking the brain of the eminent Stephen Hawking, who was one of the most brilliant minds of the century, will certainly be a treat. If you’re into the big bang, black holes, time machines, space travel, and more, then read on because here is why Filipinos should read A Brief History of Time. BOOM!
Appreciating how far we’ve come
Apart from it being a phenomenal international bestseller written by an influential thinker like Stephen Hawking, I was first drawn to A Brief History of Time because of the word ‘history’ in the title. My eyes usually sparkle with joy every time I see books like “history of (insert word here)” at bookstores. So, it wasn’t that difficult to get interested in it in the first place.
The book is about history not just of time but also of science, and how humans have perceived and understood the world and beyond. It gives us a quick tour on the development of human thought and understanding, from Aristotle and Ptolemy to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and more.
It also gives us a view of how great thinkers came up with their ideas during their time that can radiate a sense of pride of how much we know now as a species, and how far we’ve come. Reading about it reminds us as well of how much we still don’t know and how much we have yet to discover.
Our infinite quest for knowledge
While my reading niche revolves around humanities and social science, reading popular science books every now and then like A Brief History of Time gives me a different kind of amusement and awe. I do enjoy reading “sciencey” things, too. However, what pains me is that I only got deeper into this interest later in life and not earlier while I was still at school.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had great science teachers since my grade school years. They taught us the essential things like photosynthesis, solar system, periodic table, and all that. But, of course, when we’re at school, we read textbooks, do homework, and take tests. We’re not usually introduced to additional reading assignments like A Brief History of Time , The Selfish Gene, or On the Origin of Species, which I understand because teachers have to follow the curriculum. I have nothing against the fact, or them.
Beyond all the facts we’ve learned from our textbooks, I think the essential science lesson for us is to stay curious. We should keep asking difficult questions and finding joy in the process of knowing. We should keep pushing the boundaries of the unknown for us to further understand our being, existence, nature, and the universe because that’s what science is all about. And I’m sure Stephen Hawking and our teachers would be so proud if more people engage in this exercise.
On time and interstellar travel
I think most of us would agree that science has contributed so much in the development of our species. Thanks to science, we now understand a lot of things about ourselves and our world. We also apply this collective scientific knowledge to develop technologies that would help solve real-world problems and make our lives easier. One of the relevant examples of this application today is in medicine as we continue to grapple with the raging pandemic.
Science is useful because it works. However, sometimes we also put more value to certain sciences over the other in terms of their application in real life. For example, some people might think that biology is more beneficial to society because of its medical application compared to, let’s say, astrophysics. You might ask: Why do we have to spend billions just to send a rover to Mars if we can’t even solve our problems here at home? Why not spend those billions on a more noble cause like ending world hunger and poverty instead?
The thing about science is that it welcomes all kinds of inquiries and not just some. It tries to understand and explain natural laws through testable, reproducible, and falsifiable means so that we can predict and control natural phenomena like the spread of viruses, tectonic movement, weather fluctuations, and the effects of climate change. Certainly, astronomy and astrophysics have practical uses apart from purely heuristic and academic motives. Just imagine if the Don’t Look Up scenario happens in real life! If there’s no astronomy or science, then we would end up like the dinosaurs.
So, astronomers, cosmologists, and physicists like Stephen Hawking are working hard to understand the universe not solely for self-gratification but also for the benefit and survival of our species and our world. They are working on a grand unified theory of everything so that we can predict and control things more accurately, which will eventually open new horizons and frontiers for humanity. Think about the possibility of time machines or interstellar travel. That might still be a far-fetched science fiction trope for now. But imagine what the ancients thought about the idea of airplanes during their time. So, we can never really tell!
The indomitable human spirit
Another reason why I chose to share about A Brief History of Time is because I’ve also recently watched The Theory of Everything on Netflix. It is a 2014 biographical drama film that details the life of Stephen Hawking, including his battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. (The book is also referenced in the film, so you might want to watch it, too.)
Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with an early-onset and slow-progressing ALS in his early 20s that left him paralysed all his life. His doctor initially told him he only had a few months to live. But he surely was a fighter and lived until 76. However, his health had deteriorated through the years, and he had also lost his speech later on. That’s why some of us might have the lasting image of him sitting on a motorized chair with his speech-generating device.
Watching the film and reading the book made me appreciate Stephen Hawking more. He was not just a legend in science as his story also exudes hope, strength, and courage to face life amidst difficult circumstances. His experience is an epitome that anything is possible with perseverance and purpose; and he certainly found purpose in science. His disability didn’t make him falter and, surely, didn’t make him less of a person.
Fostering humility in humanity
Reading A Brief History of Time was a humbling experience for me. It made me appreciate and realize our place, how little we are, and how little we know about the universe. The collective knowledge that we have may have grown exponentially for the past centuries that propelled us to this level of sophistication where modern technology is right at our fingertips, and that we can possibly send humans to Mars in our lifetime, but these feats should not make us feel excessively proud. These should instead humble us and make us realize that there’s still a lot to be discovered and that it’s okay if we don’t have all the answers now.
That’s the lasting message I got from A Brief History of Time, and that is it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” It’s truly liberating to acknowledge our limits and ignorance. It takes courage, honesty, and maturity. However, it’s also empowering to challenge ourselves and say: “I don’t know but I’ll look it up and hopefully, I’ll get there.” And that, for me, is the beauty of science. ☁️