A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time has been on my reading list for a desperately long time. First published in 1988 (and updated a decade later), it is the renowned physicist’s first attempt to educate the masses, as he aims to explain plainly complex theories and findings in the world of cosmology. While my aptitude for such material is sorely lacking, I certainly aspire to better understand it all. For who hasn’t looked up at the stars on a clear, dark night and been deeply humbled? As Hawking perfectly states, “Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from.”

So in honor of his seventieth birthday, I decided to face my inadequacies and voyage to far off places in my mind. The truth, I found, is that Hawking is just as brilliant at explaining science as he is at studying it, even adding an enthusiastic exclamation point to particularly salient ideas. While I certainly didn’t retain every detail, I nevertheless emerged feeling enlightened, emboldened, and curious for more. Beyond the intricate mathematics at the core of these theorems, the larger concepts are philosophical in nature and speak to all of us.

But what is the value in reading a twenty-year-old science book? In addition to being a classic in the field, A Brief History of Time offers an excellent history lesson. As with any area of human progress, we cannot understand where we are going unless we understand where we have been. Science is evolving, and here Hawking provides a clear outline, touching on all the major players from Aristotle to, well, himself. He describes the scientific developments that led to the shift from an Earth-centric view to an ever-expanding universe. He asks us to contemplate time and space as dynamically bound—not as two separate, fixed ideas, but rather as one “space-time,” each part perpetually affecting the other. He also asks us to comprehend the uncertainty principle, which asserts that we will never be able to measure the present state of the universe precisely.

There are other massive ideas over which to mull. For instance, when I look up at that beautiful starry sky, I’m not only beholding visible stars (about 100 thousand million in our galaxy alone), but also black holes, or collapsed stars, which may be greater in number and aren’t black after all. In fact, “they glow like a hot body.” Even bigger and more nebulous, I am now ruminating, along with the scientific community, on the fate of the universe. If it had a singular beginning, The Big Bang, will it have an end? And further to that point, is time absolute or imaginary? Maybe a second read is in order…

Scientists are on a mission to uncover a unified theory of the universe, one that eloquently unites the theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. This was true ten years ago, and it’s still true. Partial theories abound, but the quixotic unifier remains unsubstantiated. Whether the answer rests, perhaps, with extra dimensions and superstrings has yet to be proven. But we can trust that scientists—and we non-scientists, too—will continue to probe, because collectively “our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence.”

-JF, 2012

Citation: Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York, Bantam, 1988. Print.

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