A Brief History of Time

March 26, 2014
Stephen Hawking

Another book on loan from my preciousss.

Although I've always had a fascination for physics (and many other hard sciences), I must admit that certain parts of modern physics - such as quantum mechanics and some of the implications of general relativity - seem rather esoteric to me. Although I do hold a science degree, I'm not a physicist - just an interested layman. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time masterfully managed to explain quite a lot of what I had struggled to understand.

I obviously cannot say that I now "get" modern physics - that would be a disingenuous claim, and as Richard Feynman once quipped: If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics. But certain of the aspects of this world that I had trouble understanding (such as the role of observation in quantum phenomena - a concept that always seemed bizarrely "magical" to me) are explained well enough that I had a number of "aha" moments as things clicked into place.

From a pop science education viewpoint, I thought it was a brilliant technique to start the book with a brief history lesson, explaining the development of cosmological science from Eratosthenes to Einstein. This gives a relatable and easy-to-follow progression from the intuitive to the formally mathematical - much like the progression of science itself.

One slight annoyance: Hawking has a rather idiosyncratic way of expressing large numbers. Rather than "billion", he will use "thousand million" - and while I realize that this is probably an attempt to disambiguate between long-scale and short-scale numbers, but I couldn't help but find constructs like "thousand million million" bizarre and jarring - and I'm from a country that uses long scale (unlike the English-speaking world), so I reckon he's doing it for my benefit. Similarly, constructs like "a centimeter divided by 1 with 1 with thirty-three zeros after it" just annoyed me. We have perfectly good numerals and a nice notation for exponentiation to express these things with!

I also dislike Hawking's tendency to use language laden with religious symbolism. While certainly poetic, it also makes him a generous target of creationist quote miners. He probably wouldn't like that, given that his disbelief in a personal god is on public record.

Despite these two minor gripes, I think this is a truly excellent book, one of the best pop science books I've read in a long time. The writing quality is on par with Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.

Very highly recommended.

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