The Illustrated A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 248 pages, 1988

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I’ve got to admit I found the thought of reading a book by one of the world’s greatest physicists intimidating, but I figured if it became such a widespread bestseller it had to be (more or less) accessible.

Synopsis: Renowned theoretical physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking presents a look at the universe to people who are curious about how things work and how we fit into the scheme of things, but don’t necessarily have the scientific background to deal with overly-technical terms or mathematical equations. Topics covered include the beginning and the end of the universe, black holes, the quest for a grand unified theory, and the possibility of time travel.

Why you should read this book: Of all the words that might cross your mind while reading A Brief History – ‘wow,’ ‘unbelievable,’ ‘amazing’ – ‘boring’ won’t be one of them. The universe is a more mind-boggling place than any science fiction author could dream of, and Hawking manages to make it (more or less) understandable. Although some people might view science as the clichéd ‘cold and clinical,’ Hawking infuses his book with humorous warmth and a deep respect for his fellow human beings, an impressive feat when talking about quantum physics (probably the most challenging section of the book for the majority of people). Sure, the writing is simplified, but never in a condescending way – Hawking just wants to share the joy of knowledge and the possiblities of the universe with as many people as possible. Even if you don’t manage to wrap your head around all of the ideas and theories included in the book, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be looking at the world with a new sense of awe when you’re finished. A book to read slowly – expect to repeatedly stop in amazement in order to ponder the incredible intricacies of our universe.

Why you should avoid this book: There’s some things in here that will go over the head of almost anyone but (though occasionally including) professional physicists. When a man with an astronomical IQ tells you it’s impossible to visualize the fourth dimension (time), it’s best to listen to him unless you’re looking for a massive case of brain-strain. There’s certainly places where the illustrations seem inadequate, but it’s definitely a feeling that it’s the science that’s overly complicated, not Professor Hawking’s explanations.

Opening paragraph:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: ‘What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, ‘What is the tortoise standing on?’ ‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever,’ said the old lady. ‘But it’s turtles all the way down!’

Fabulous quotes:

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the greatest intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. With hindsight, it is easy to wonder why no one had thought of it before. Newton, and others, should have realized that a static universe would soon start to contract under the influence of gravity. But suppose instead that the universe is expanding. If it was expanding fairly slowly, the force of gravity would cause it eventually to stop expanding and then to start contracting. However, if it was expanding at more than a certain critical rate, gravity would never be strong enough to stop it, and the universe would continue to expand forever. This is a bit like what happens when one fires a rocket upward from the surface of the earth. If it has a fairly low speed, gravity will eventually stop the rocket and it will start falling back. On the other hand, if the rocket has more than a certain critical speed (about seven miles per second) gravity will not be strong enough to pull it back, so it will keep going away from the earth forever.

But there would not be much joy in returning from a space voyage a few years older to find that everyone you had left behind was dead and gone thousands of years ago. So in order to have any human interest in their stories, science fiction authors had to suppose that we would one day discover how to travel faster than light. What most of these authors don’t seem to have realized is that if you can travel faster than light, the theory of relativity implies you can also travel back in time[…].

Also recommended: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis.

Also by this author: A Briefer History of Time; God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs That Changed History; The Universe in a Nutshell; Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays; The Future of Spacetime (contributor); The Nature of Space and Time (contributor); On the Shoulders of Giants (contributor/editor); The Cambridge Lectures; Hawking on the Big Bang and Black Holes.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Thinking of buying The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe? While he did write the text, Hawking tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent the book from being published because the information it contains is already covered in other books, such as A Brief History of Time.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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