Stephen Hawking’s Final Book and Scientific Paper Just Got Published: Brief Answers to the Big Questions and “Information Paradox”

How did it all begin?  Is there a god? Can we pre­dict the future? Is there oth­er intel­li­gent life in the uni­verse? For decades, many of us turned to Stephen Hawk­ing for answers to those ques­tions, or at least supreme­ly intel­li­gent sug­ges­tions as to where the answers might lie. But the cel­e­brat­ed astro­physi­cist’s death ear­li­er this year — after an aston­ish­ing­ly long life and career, giv­en the chal­lenges he faced — took that option away. It turns out, though, that we haven’t actu­al­ly heard the last of him: his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Ques­tions (whose trail­er you can watch just above), came out just this week.

The book is quin­tes­sen­tial Hawk­ing,” writes physics pro­fes­sor Marce­lo Gleis­er at NPR. “He starts by address­ing the ques­tions in physics and cos­mol­o­gy that he ded­i­cat­ed his intel­lec­tu­al life to answer, using easy-to-fol­low argu­ments and draw­ing from every­day images and thought exper­i­ments.” Hawk­ing’s answers to the big ques­tions fig­ure into his view of not just the world but all exis­tence: he believes, writes Gleis­er, “that human­i­ty’s evo­lu­tion­ary mis­sion is to spread through the galaxy as a sort of cos­mic gar­den­er, sow­ing life along the way. He believes, even if not with­out wor­ry, that we will devel­op a pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship with intel­li­gent machines and that, togeth­er, we will redesign the cur­rent fate of the world and of our species.”

In par­al­lel with his career as a pub­lic fig­ure and writer of pop­u­lar explana­to­ry books, which began with 1988’s A Brief His­to­ry of Time, Hawk­ing per­formed sci­en­tif­ic research on black holes. The Guardian’s sci­ence edi­tor Ian Sam­ple describes it as a “career-long effort to under­stand what hap­pens to infor­ma­tion when objects fall into black holes,” capped off by a posthu­mous­ly pub­lished paper titled “Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair.” “Toss an object into a black hole and the black hole’s tem­per­a­ture ought to change,” writes Sam­ple. “So too will a prop­er­ty called entropy, a mea­sure of an object’s inter­nal dis­or­der, which ris­es the hot­ter it gets.” In the paper Hawk­ing and his col­lab­o­ra­tors show that “a black hole’s entropy may be record­ed by pho­tons that sur­round the black hole’s event hori­zon, the point at which light can­not escape the intense grav­i­ta­tion­al pull. They call this sheen of pho­tons ‘soft hair’.”

If that sounds tricky to under­stand, all of us who have appre­ci­at­ed Hawk­ing’s writ­ing know that we can at least go back to his books to get a grip on black holes and the ques­tions about them that get sci­en­tists most curi­ous. Much remains for future astro­physi­cists to work on about that “infor­ma­tion para­dox,” to do with where, exact­ly, every­thing that seem­ing­ly gets sucked into a black hole actu­al­ly goes. “We don’t know that Hawk­ing entropy accounts for every­thing you could pos­si­bly throw at a black hole, so this is real­ly a step along the way,” Hawk­ing’s col­lab­o­ra­tor Mal­colm J. Per­ry tells Sam­ple. “We think it’s a pret­ty good step, but there is a lot more work to be done.” As Hawk­ing sure­ly knew, the big ques­tions — in physics or any oth­er realm of exis­tence — nev­er quite get ful­ly answered.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Hawk­ing (RIP) Explains His Rev­o­lu­tion­ary The­o­ry of Black Holes with the Help of Chalk­board Ani­ma­tions

Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. The­sis, “Prop­er­ties of Expand­ing Uni­vers­es,” Now Free to Read/Download Online

Watch A Brief His­to­ry of Time, Errol Mor­ris’ Film About the Life & Work of Stephen Hawk­ing

The Big Ideas of Stephen Hawk­ing Explained with Sim­ple Ani­ma­tion

Watch Stephen Hawking’s Inter­view with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Record­ed 10 Days Before His Death: A Last Con­ver­sa­tion about Black Holes, Time Trav­el & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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