COMMENT:

This column doesn't often get the chance to sum up the meaning of life, the universe and all that. But this week, with a little help from Stephen Hawking and a crack team of scientists, we are in a position to answer some of your bigger questions.

As the mainstream media has reported, boffins studying some of Hawking's work have solved the problem of what came before the Big Bang.

It's just possible I'll be oversimplifying a little here, but the answer is: same old, same old. Our universe is just one in a series. The universe expands - as ours is - and then contracts again to the singularity at which point it all gets too much, you have your bang, and off we go again. And so, infinitely backwards and forwards. Conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC), they call it.

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You don't need to answer the question, who made the big bang? Everything that there is, always was.

It's the ultimate example of what goes around comes around, as Justin Timberlake once put it.

The idea of life as a cycle has been brought home to me recently by the case of the woman who has been my stepmother for more than 50 years. She has experienced what the doctors call "rapid cognitive decline" although she will describe it for you more picturesquely as being "away with the fairies". She'll describe it for you often. There were fairies too at one point - up by the ceiling in a corner of her room.

Before all this, I'd have expected to find it extremely upsetting; instead it's been the opposite. It's made me appreciate her, other people and life in general more.

From perhaps teetering on the brink of curmudgeonly in day-to-day contact, I've learned what more mature readers will already know: that being nice to people makes you feel good.

So I decided to try this being nice to people thing out in other situations and you know what: it works. Folks lap it up. Most people quite like being asked how their day is going.

So I brace myself, ask, and mentally set aside time to let them tell me.

I still have to remind myself to be anything other than terse with the schmuck who calls my phone or knocks on my door wanting to sell me something when I'm "busy". I know they are only trying to make a living.

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This is empathy, and it has practical uses. It makes you a better driver for instance, because you tell yourself that that flaming idiot is probably still learning, or of a nervous disposition, so you can just slow down and let them go at their own pace.

It's very handy at work to remember that, if you have a boss who is giving you a hard time, it's almost certainly because their boss is giving them an even harder time. (In that case, you get the bonus of a bit of schadenfreude thrown in as well.)

Like the universe, I'm in the middle of a cycle that will go on with or without me. So are you.

Humans have our own little CCC: birth, copulation and death, as it was defined by T. S. Eliot. We come into being, perhaps create a being or two whom we leave to create others in their turn, then we cease to be. We might as well make things pleasant for ourselves and each other along the way.