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Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time

Title: A Brief History of Time
Author: Stephen Hawking
Year: 1988

This best-selling book by Stephen Hawking sets out to explain scientists view of the world, from ancient times to modern string theory, targeting non-scientists like myself. Even though I’ve begun to think that popular science books should be interesting and motivate more reading, A Brief History of Time was obviously not the right book to start with. I have mixed feelings about it: some parts (especially the beginning) I quite liked, but others not so much (the rest of the book). In short, the book poses some interesting questions, but quite fails to answer or discuss them in an entertaining way.

Let’s go through the book in chronological order. Hawking starts with describing our world view as it has developed from ancient times, explaining the various shifts in theories and societies aversion to change. This bit is interesting and should serve as a nice summary for people who either don’t remember what they learnt in school, but I don’t find much here I didn’t know already.

Gradually, the narrative changes to more modern views of the structure of the universe and the book becomes slightly more interesting for a while. I only took a limited amount of physics and maths in high school and it was at least six years ago, so even though I have some idea about what he’s talking about, it’s still nice to hear it again in a slightly different form. Up to this point, nobody should think it’s difficult to follow Hawking.

After this point, it becomes a lot more abstract though, with explanations of quantum mechanics, imaginary time and string theory. Here, I think Hawking at least partly fails and loses my halfway. Perhaps that’s because the subject matter is very hard, but spending a little bit more time on some arguments would have been a good idea, cancelling or leaving out something else to make the book more easily understood.

In addition to this, there’re some quirks I can’t really accept. This is supposed to be popular science, but Hawking repeatedly makes use of extremely large numbers without explanations (like saying that something would take a million million million million million years). If this is supposed to inspire some feeling about what we’re talking about, Hawking has failed. Large numbers have no meaning and he should know that. Leaving them out entirely or relating them to something would be the way to go here; lots of zeroes simply doesn’t impress. In addition to this, Hawking attempts to joke a few times, but almost always fails.

To wrap things up, I think this book might serve as a useful introduction to people who haven’t studied any of this before, but for me, it feels a bit like the first half is nothing new and in the second half Hawking isn’t that good at explaining what he’s talking about. Besides, Hawking’s style isn’t satisfactory; he tries to do a lot, but fails completely with some parts and succeed only partly with others. Perhaps the more recent A Briefer History of Time would have been more worthwhile, since it’s more succinct, but this books certainly is not.

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    I think you should either have read A Briefer History instead or should do it too, for comparison. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was at least more up to date than this one should be after so much time.
    Although he still used the numbers from time to time…


  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    But does up-to-date mean anything? I mean, it’s not that either of us understand the difference between the various theories anyway and the slightly older ones should be roughly equal to the newer ones? However, since it’s shorter and also re-written, I think there is a chance I would have liked it more, but I don’t think it’s worth it to check it out now when I have already read this one.


  3. Xhakhal’s avatar

    I think it does mean something, yes – at least you don’t read something that’s already found out to be wrong, but the reason why I didn’t read A Brief History is just that I’m not knowledgeable enough t remember the difference if I read both.
    It might not be worth it, and ‘should’ was too firm a word to use maybe… but if you have three or four hours to spare some time in the future, at least consider it ;)