Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

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.

 

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

I remember reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under as a tween, and while my brain has written over most of the actual content, I do remember howling with laughter. I figured I could do with a bit of a giggle after The Divine Comedy, so I went with A Short History Of Nearly Everything as my next undertaking from The List.

I wasn’t sure where to find A Short History Of Nearly Everything when I was trawling through my favourite secondhand bookstore. Would it be under History? Science? Reference? Ultimately, I found it buried in the miscellaneous no-mans-land shelf, just below “Philosophy”, which seemed fitting. I thanked my lucky stars that it was a paperback – this book is a monster, and I’ve seen a few hardcover copies that could be used for deadlifts.

One of my favourite things about secondhand books is the inscriptions you find in the front. This one reads: “July ’04 – Dear Rodger, The best present I could find for the Man who knows (nearly) everything! Thanks for your time, encouragement… and straight talking. Good luck with everything and I will see you soon! Lyn x”. Shout out to straight-talking Rodger, wherever he is. I hope he finished the book and (now knowing everything) no longer needs it.


On with the review: A Short History Of Nearly Everything does exactly what it says on the label. It serves as a crash-course introduction to most areas of scientific inquiry, covering off everything from the Big Bang to evolution to quantum mechanics. It sounds like it should be a snooze-fest, I know, but it’s written in a folksy, conversational style that most of the general public will find easily accessible. Proof in the pudding: it was one of the best-selling pop-science books of 2005.

Its big selling point is, of course, that it is Science for the Everyman – but don’t be fooled! There’s some shit in here that will fuck with your thinking meat. I thought I’d burn through it really quickly, given Bryson’s famously-readable voice, but I found I had to go back and re-read a lot of passages a few times over in order to truly wrap my head around their meaning. It’s hard to comprehend, for instance, the true size of the solar system (it turns out those diagrams in your textbooks at school were a lie). Fortunately, Bryson breaks up the hard parts with gossipy tid-bits about the history of science: who slept with whom, who hated whom, who stole ideas and passed them off as their own. He also manages to work in a few laughs.

“Our tolerance for plutonium is zero: there is no level at which it is not going to make you want to lie down.”

More than anything, Bryson makes it abundantly clear how little we actually know – even about things that we think we know. Fascinating stuff!




Haters on the internet have pointed out some factual errors and inaccuracies (of course), but in large part these are solely due to new discoveries made, or reclassifications, since publication. A Short History Of Nearly Everything is over a decade old, for fuck’s sake – I think we can forgive Bryson for saying that Pluto is a planet.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is perfect for anyone who finds themselves in need of fun facts that can be delivered smugly, over a water cooler or knock-off beers. I will definitely read it again, just for fun, and so it gets the coveted status of Recommended here at Keeping Up With The Penguins.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Nearly Everything:

  • “too technical for my 95 year old mother” – SQ
  • “To be Terse; Good!” – Samoa Tech
  • “Not a huge fan of books. You’ve got to make it interesting to get me to read it. And even though I recently purchase a terrific new two-pack of 2.0 readers right here on Amazon for dirt cheap, I still can’t read this tiny little type. This book tries to jam pack very large quantities of words into a few pounds of paper. It’s unreadable.
    I am an author and despite my dislike of books in general, I bought this to see what the bestselling authors were up to. I was very disappointed. It’s like going to a restaurant where they care nothing about quality as long as you feel fat.
    Keep writing Bill! Or hiring people to do it for you! Keep jamming words into best selling books! People seem to love them, and I think they sometimes feel smart just knowing someone might see the book hanging around in their living room.
    I WOULD recommend, on the other hand, a good Oliver Stone documentary. If you want to learn things.” – Mark Urso
  • “This is probably a great book but I am not smart enough t read it. Seriously Im not trying to be funny…….. and Im suppose dto be kinda smart.” – michael s wolf

 

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Wild – Cheryl Strayed

I’d been looking forward to reading Wild for a while, especially since listening to Cheryl Strayed’s appearance on Liz Gilbert’s podcast. After all the Wuthering Heights drama and the Catcher in the Rye moodiness, I was well set for a slightly more optimistic memoir about losing and finding oneself in trying times.

Wild was published in 2012. It follows Strayed’s 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, which she undertook after the traumatic death of her young mother in the mid-90s. I knew all of that going in. What I didn’t know was how young Strayed was herself when all of this went down. I’d been picturing her as a late-30s suburban mother with a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in the ‘burbs, abandoning it all to find herself. In reality, she was a mid-20s recent divorcee with a heroin habit and a pretty transient life, subsisting on the few dollars she could scrape together from waitressing jobs, and that’s where the story begins.

Strayed sets out on this grueling trek almost entirely unprepared; she had essentially no prior hiking experience, figuring – like we all do, I think – that hiking = walking, and what’s so hard about that? There are two stories that weave together across the memoir: her mother’s death (and we get all of the weren’t-we-so-poor-and-dysfunctional-but-we-loved-each-other-so-much backstory, gratis), and the at-times comical dire realities of a haphazard hike through the wilderness.


Strayed devotes a lot of air time to the heaviness of her pack and the weight that she’s carrying, which is a clumsy metaphor but it’s somehow forgivable. As I was reading, I noted that, as a novel, this story would be annoying and trite and cliché. Strayed’s story derives all of its value from being an actual lived experience. She is brutally honest, in every sense, relaying her self-awareness in a way that I deeply admire.

I must say, though, I wasn’t sold on the “beauty” of the wilderness in Wild – I’m not a country girl at all, and those descriptive passages sounded like my own personal hell. I’d much rather hike 1,100 miles in a concrete jungle CBD any day (and, indeed, I often do, when a water pipe bursts on Pitt Street and the bus timetable is fucked).




I was fully prepared to cry reading Wild, but I didn’t. It was good – it didn’t change me as a person, but it enjoyed reading it. It made me think a lot about survival and determination. Getting by. Sometimes you’re under-prepared and things go wrong (you lose a hiking boot, you find yourself with just two pennies to your name, you run into a bear), but you cop onto yourself and you keep going anyway. For a time, it became a sort of mantra for me: “if Cheryl Strayed can hike a million miles in too-small boots that are giving her blisters, then I can walk home in the rain”. Having a dream isn’t enough, after all: you have to actually do the thing.

There was a film adaptation released in 2014, which I’d love to see – not because I think it make a great movie, necessarily, but more because I’m curious as to how a book about a mostly-solo hike, driven entirely by internal monologue, could be adapted for the big screen.

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommended it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wild:

  • “I haven’t actually read it – the one star is for Amazon charging 9.99 for Kindle (paperless) and 8.35 for paper – basically incentivizing cutting down trees to read their books. Bad form Jeff, very bad form” – R1952
  • “… the author seems to be the typical liberal feminist – no recognition of the greatness of God, everything should be handed to her, everything is centered around her and her feelings. Especially her feeling – feelings to her are the most important aspect of her life. Bottom line – do not waste your time reading this book unless you are a flaming liberal. Than you will probably love it.” – Seventh Son
  • “I did not appreciate the use of the f- word. Especially in a prayer.” – Janice Wester

 

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In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

My next Keeping Up With The Penguins undertaking was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966 – the first “novelistic true crime book”… probably.

No one could ever accuse Capote of not putting in the hours: he spent six years researching and interviewing and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, taking literally 8,000 pages of notes (what a masochist!), before finally sitting down to write In Cold Blood. Yeah, it’s one of the highest-selling true crime books in the history of publishing, and yeah, it’s bloody brilliant – but still! What an overachiever…

(His hard work didn’t exactly pay off as far as he was concerned. Despite an absolute avalanche of critical acclaim, Capote was hugely bummed that it never won a Pulitzer. He was desperate to top his buddy Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Male egos, I tell ya!)

So, here’s the deal: Capote reads a tiny little piece in The New Yorker about a well-liked Kansas family getting merked in this weirdly motiveless and clueless crime. He figures that’s a good enough basis on which to pack up and ship off to a country town you’ve never heard of – dragging Harper Lee with him, no less! – and figure out what the fuck went down.

He sets the story up in a really eerie way, with super-intimate descriptions of the lives of both the victims and the perps. You learn everything about their love lives and their pets and their phobias and how often they change their underpants. The story’s not a “whodunit” per se, in the sense that you know who dun it right from the beginning – he weaves the stories of the killers and the victims together, and tells them side-by-side. You also kinda figure that the bad guys must get caught eventually (because it says so on the back of the book). I guess it’s more a “whydunit” (I call the trademark on that): why this family? How did they become the targets? What did the killers get out of it? Was it worth six lives?

You’d think the arrest would be the climax, but that also happens early, only two-thirds of the way through. You get to watch the bad guys suffer through the prisoner’s dilemma, and finally divulge all the gory details of their crime (tl;dr summary: they rocked up expecting to find a safe with ten grand inside, got pissed off when they couldn’t find it, argued about whether to rape the daughter, then neutralised all the witnesses by blowing their faces off with a shotgun, and all told they scored about forty bucks for their trouble). Capote follows their imprisonment, their trial, their endless appeals and – ultimately – their executions.

You’ll really get out what you put in with In Cold Blood. It can be read as a conservative defence of capital punishment (taking the bad guys’ eyes, just like Jesus would do), or as a scathing leftie indictment of the U.S. incarceration system (every single criminal character is a recidivist of some sort, having left jail only to return a short time later). In that regard, it’s really artfully done. Unsurprisingly, though, you do kinda have to take off your journalistic-integrity hat. It doesn’t read anything like a non-fiction book: it reads as a novel. So, inevitably, there are endless questions as to its veracity, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Capote was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license.

I would wholeheartedly recommend In Cold Blood (as long as you’re not a kill-joy that takes things too seriously and gets mad when Capote takes some liberties with the truth). I’ll definitely read it again. Chilling, but fascinating!

My favourite Amazon reviews of In Cold Blood:

  • “It was a cold dud.” – Old Crow
  • “If you’ve already read it, you know how good it is. If you haven’t, I hate you for still getting to read it for the first time.” – Clint Pross
  • “Despite the fact that I bought this on the recommendation of a stupid jerk who acted like I hung the moon until one day he suddenly broke up with me the day after I’d been awake all night in the ER with a sick kid… OVER THE PHONE, NO LESS… WTF?!… it’s a really good book. You can’t blame Capote that there are terrible humans in the world, even if he did write about them really well. Maybe my boyfriend recommending a book about a gruesome family execution should have tipped me off. I dunno. You live, you learn. But yeah, good book.” – Jess

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