Classic, but not timeless

A Brief History of Time

by Stephen Hawking

The wonderful thing about this book is that Hawking is smart enough to recognise that it is a snapshot. The book’s popularity and acclaim could lead one to the assumption that it will be a timeless contribution to science writing. It may stick around for some time, but much of what it says will be proven wrong or irrelevant. That, so I learn, is the nature of physics. And what an excellent basis for a non-fiction book.

The book itself is brilliant. Hawking’s writing is lucid, crisp and full of character. I particularly liked his little jokes (to himself more than the reader) at some paragraphs that detail the wacky properties of, say, quantum mechanics or the superstring theory. As a lay reader who has fallen out of the science world over recent years, this book was a very useful introduction to the history of physics, time and cosmology – and many other sciences. Hawking moves from Copernicus through Newton and Einstein and right to his own research in a seamless fashion. The reader is, crucially, helped to understand how all the great theories of physics have developed together – their overlaps, their clashes and their limitations.

Hawking even respects human culture enough to bring into his book non-scientific understandings of the world. He frequently refers to one “God” (presumably a Judaeo-Christian god), and how questions around the creation of the universe can be answered differently by different types of philosopher, including theists and physicists.

An extra note. I was reading the illustrated edition, which contains several hundred diagrams, illustrations and photographs. I cannot imagine reading Hawking’s text without these – articulate though it is. The pictures help a great deal in the understanding of the book’s big ideas.

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