Friday, May 17, 2019

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

A valiant attempt at a physics primer
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was originally published in 1988, but I am reviewing the 2017 ebook edition, which includes an updated afterword. This book, intended for an audience of general readers, provides an overview of physics from the astronomical to the subatomic level. In doing so, Hawking delves into such fundamental yet difficult to comprehend questions as the nature of space and time, what happens inside a black hole, and whether time travel will is possible. Through a mix of proven fact, contentious theory, and informed speculation, Hawking takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the arcane workings of the universe.

There is no doubt that Hawking was a genius and one of the most knowledgeable people in this field. Since this is a book aimed at the general public, however, the real judge of its success is how well Hawking can explain complex concepts to a lay reader. It turns out that although Hawking may very well have been the next Einstein, he was no Bill Nye the Science Guy. Though I am not a scientist, I consider myself pretty well-versed in fundamental scientific concepts, yet there were passages in this book that were quite difficult to decipher. Even after repeated readings, some of Hawking’s explanations suffer from excessive ambiguity and assumptions of prior knowledge on the part of the reader.

Hawking spells out the processes of classical physics with a methodical step-by-step precision, and he explains general relativity pretty well. When he gets to quantum mechanics, however, his explanations are far less clear, and he expects the reader to make a pretty considerable leap in understanding. His discussions of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and particle spin are particularly baffling, and he glosses over the standard model of particle physics pretty quickly. His brief description of string theory, on the other hand, may be the clearest I’ve ever read. Like any other “elementary” work on quantum physics, there is a limit to how far he will clarify, and the reader is expected to take some assertions on faith. Presumably this is because a more thorough explanation would either be too difficult for the layman to understand or would simply make the book too long and cumbersome.

Astronomical phenomena, such as the big bang, black holes, and the expanding universe, are easier for the reader to wrap his or her head around, and Hawking discusses them in a manner that is eye opening and intellectually thrilling. His explanation of time and speculations on time travel also make for entertaining and informative reading. Hawking even delves into philosophy a bit by questioning whether there’s a place for god in the universe and contemplating the validity of the anthropic principle. One of the most important points he makes is that philosophers stopped concerning themselves with cosmology once physics became too complicated for them to understand. Throughout the book, Hawking explains that the fundamental purpose of physics is to strive for a unified theory of everything that explains all the workings of the universe, one that rectifies relativity and quantum physics and unites gravity with the forces of electronuclear interaction. Once that theory is discovered, Hawking asserts, science will be easier for laymen to understand, and the average person will take a much deeper interest in the physical workings of the universe. Until then, even if some answers are yet to be discovered, and others weren’t elucidated entirely to my comprehension, this landmark book certainly did pique my interest on the subject and provided much fascinating food for thought.

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