Earlier this year, the world lost renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking. The guy had more accolades and letters after his name than you could poke a stick at, but he also had a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease. It slowed him down not at all, and he survived well past even the most optimistic prognosis. Over the course of his long life, he developed gravitational singularity theorems, predicted that black holes emit radiation (what we now call Hawking radiation, after him), set out a theory of cosmology unifying general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and worked at (or ran!) basically every respected scientific institution on the planet. It’s all very impressive, and yet what he is perhaps best known for in the public consciousness is his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang Theory to Black Holes.
In 1983, Hawking went to his buddy at the Cambridge University Press, and put forward a whacky idea: he wanted to publish a popular science book, covering the most complex theories of physics in the scientific world. In the first draft, he used a stack of mathematical equations to illustrate his points, and this is when Hawking’s publisher gave him some world-changing advice: the publisher said that for every equation in the book, the readership would be cut in half (figuring, quite rightly, that people in airport bookshops would be put off by long strings of numbers). Hawking took the advice on board, went away and removed every single equation from the book, bar one (I bet you can guess which 😉 E=MC2). All of the concepts are illustrated instead with diagrams and other drawings, which is no mean feat. And, what do you know, the strategy worked! The book sold over 10 million copies in the first twenty years; according to the foreword in this edition, the most recent estimates suggest that there had been one copy sold for every 750 people on the planet.
The first edition of A Brief History of Time was published on April Fool’s Day in 1988. It’s kind of hard-science-for-the-everyman – it covers cosmology (the study of the universe) from all angles, including the structure, origin, and development of the universe, and how it’s all going to end up. So, that’s some tall order! It all starts with the Big Bang, and this is where I got my first interesting insight from Hawking. He contended that we shouldn’t really bother trying to work out what there was before the Big Bang, because during that period the universe was so small and dense that all of the laws of science as we understand them now completely broke down – so, anything that happened before that point could not possibly affect what we observe today. Cool, eh? It all comes back to his central thesis:
“The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe.”
See, science has two major theories that kind-of explain most stuff on their own. The theory of relativity explains all the big stuff (galaxies, planets, gravity, etc.), while quantum mechanics explains all the teeny-tiny stuff (atoms, electrons, elements, etc.). The problem is… well, they don’t quite match up. We can’t apply the theory of relativity on a small scale, and quantum mechanics doesn’t work on a large scale. Uh-oh! Hawking was totally across it, though, and his life’s work was in service of furthering the search for a single unifying theory that could bring the two together.
The 1996 edition of the book – the one that I read, pictured above – and its subsequent editions also discuss the possibility of time travel, mostly in relation to wormholes. It sounds real cool, but it’s pretty tough to wrap your head around. Hawking does a great job of providing a straightforward no-nonsense explanation of the basics, but damn, it would have been great if he gave a few more tangible examples, or a metaphor or two, now and then. I found myself really missing Bill Bryson’s conversational folksy style in A Short History of Nearly Everything (my full review here). A Brief History of Time is a very dry read in comparison, and if you’re not scientifically minded you’ll probably find yourself needing to re-read some paragraphs a few times to make sure you fully comprehend what he’s on about. He does start using more metaphors and stuff as the concepts get more complex (thank goodness!), but by then it’s a little late in the game.
There is a very helpful glossary in the back of the book… but, like I found with Moby Dick, there are no notes or indications in the text itself as to which words are defined for you. This is particularly unhelpful in non-fiction books like A Brief History of Time that rely so heavily on technical terms. Why do publishers do this?!
I must admit, there was a lot more God ChatTM than I was expecting. Hawking referred back to religion at least once every chapter or two, discussing whether it was possible that the Big Bang was the result of divine intervention and so forth. I understand that he must have copped questions in that vein all his life, but I was still a bit disappointed by it. Surely scientific endeavour is about more than just… well, figuring out whether there’s a big guy upstairs.
(And, speaking of disappointment, I also noticed that in his Acknowledgments section, all of Hawking’s “secretaries” were women, while all of his “assistants” in research were men. I know it seems like a small thing and I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I would have hoped that one of the most brilliant minds of a generation would have been a little more cognisant of how he valued the work of both genders. Just saying!)
On the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the final chapters: Hawking was all about not only finding a unified theory of everything, but also making it accessible. He dedicated himself to finding a theory that could be easily explained to everyone (even dummies like me!), and he was highly critical of elitism in hard science. I think elitism of all kinds stinks, so I’m super glad Hawking through his considerable weight behind dismantling it in his academic circles (step one: publish the most widely read popular science book of all time, check!).
If it all sounds like a bit much for you, never fear: in 2005, Hawking collaborated with Leonard Mlodinow to produce A Briefer History of Time, an abridged version of the original book with some updated content. That’s probably a good place to start if you’re really at sea with all this cosmology business. I wouldn’t bother with the movie, though – the 1991 release A Brief History of Time is actually a documentary film about Hawking that just happens to share the title with the book, rather than an adaptation of the book itself.
Overall, I’d say that A Brief History of Time will be great for you if you’re after an introduction to all the fundamentals of hard science and cosmology, and you’re determined enough (slash clever enough) to persist through some rather dry writing. If you’d rather have a laugh with a light read, and you’re not taking the subject too seriously, maybe check out A Short History of Nearly Everything instead.
My favourite Amazon reviews of A Brief History of Time:
- “This is a great book and fun read for cannbis smokers. Every paragraph had me pausing and in deep thought. I am now reading Brian Green’s Fabric of the Cosmos and I’m glad I read this book 1st.” – J. Swanke
- “Not enough info. I was expecting” – sandnella
- “Interesting text, it follows my thoughts concerning the Big Bag Theory and infinity.” – Gary Gardner
- “Time is too brief to read this book.” – Henryu Porter
- “Wow very tough read. You need to be a rocket scientist to understand it.” – Joe Plotnick
- “His work is all bogus aimed at puzzling people with false pictorial work, wrong concepts. There is no black hole with a conical shape. This work is a big gossip.” – Honorable Sir.