WHY WE MUST ASK THE BIG QUESTIONS
People have always wanted answers to the big questions. Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? What is the meaning and design behind it all? Is there anyone out there? The creation accounts of the past now seem less relevant and credible. They have been replaced by a variety of what can only be called superstitions, ranging from New Age to Star Trek. But real science can be far stranger than science fiction, and much more satisfying.
I am a scientist. And a scientist with a deep fascination with physics, cosmology, the universe and the future of humanity. I was brought up by my parents to have an unwavering curiosity and, like my father, to research and try to answer the many questions that science asks us. I have spent my life travelling across the universe, inside my mind. Through theoretical physics, I have sought to answer some of the great questions. At one point, I thought I would see the end of physics as we know it, but now I think the wonder of discovery will continue long after I am gone. We are close to some of these answers, but we are not there yet.
The problem is, most people believe that real science is too difficult and complicated for them to understand. But I don't think this is the case. To do research on the fundamental laws that govern the universe would require a commitment of time that most people don't have; the world would soon grind to a halt if we all tried to do theoretical physics. But most people can understand and appreciate the basic ideas if they are presented in a clear way without equations, which I believe is possible and which is something I have enjoyed trying to do throughout my life.
It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last fifty years, and I'm happy if I have made a contribution. One of the great revelations of the space age has been the perspective it has given humanity on ourselves. When we see the Earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole. We see the unity, and not the divisions. It is such a simple image with a compelling message; one planet, one human race.
I want to add my voice to those who demand immediate action on the key challenges for our global community. I hope that going forward, even when I am no longer here, people with power can show creativity, courage and leadership. Let them rise to the challenge of the sustainable development goals, and act, not out of self-interest, but out of common interest. I am very aware of the preciousness of time. Seize the moment. Act now.
I have written about my life before but some of my early experiences are worth repeating as I think about my lifelong fascination with the big questions.
I was born exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo, and I would like to think that this coincidence has had a bearing on how my scientific life has turned out. However, I estimate that about 200,000 other babies were also born that day; I don't know whether any of them were later interested in astronomy.
I grew up in a tall, narrow Victorian house in Highgate, London, which my parents had bought very cheaply during the Second World War when everyone thought London was going to be bombed flat. In fact, a V2 rocket landed a few houses away from ours. I was away with my mother and sister at the time, and fortunately my father was not hurt. For years afterwards, there was a large bomb site down the road in which I used to play with my friend Howard. We investigated the results of the explosion with the same curiosity that drove me my whole life.
In 1950, my father's place of work moved to the northern edge of London, to the newly constructed National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, so my family relocated to the cathedral city of St Albans nearby. I was sent to the High School for Girls, which despite its name took boys up to the age of ten. Later I went to St Albans School. I was never more than about halfway up the class—it was a very bright class—but my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything.