Physics

A brief History of Time



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The subject is vast, the book is thin, and author Stephen Hawking is the only household name scientist since Albert Einstein. That is the formula for a bestseller regardless of the the content. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, has been remarkably successful for a science book, nine million copies hot. A diminishing slice of the book buying public purchased his follow-up books on cosmology, of which there have been four, including A Briefer History of Time, and that sales deficiency speaks volumes.

Hawking may well be one of the smartest people who ever lived but in his first effort at following Carl Sagan into the world of popular science, he managed to fall into the same trap as almost every stuffy academic that tackled similar subjects before him. No audience in any part of the intellectual spectrum could possibly be satisfied with more than a third of this slim volume because it ranges all over the place in regard to how much background you need to understand it.. A Brief History of Time starts out insultingly simple for anyone with an undergraduate degree in physics, does a tiresome review for those who know their science, and quickly soars to a place so complex that only Hawking's peers can follow.

I have to wonder who the book was intended for, or for what purpose. If anything, it made science appear more frustrating that accessible. I suppose that a layman can read the first third of the book, and leave it on his table as a conversation piece. While that seems to be what coffee tables are for, it doesn't bode well for educational tools. The science student will learn nothing, and the tiny slice of society that can read the last third would be better served poring over raw equations. For most of us, when he was talking about superstrings he might as well have been talking about Silly String.

This scenario is part of a sad trend in publishing where the publisher imparts scant guidance to the famous author on what the philosophy of a book should be. Reportedly, Bantam warned him about the use of equations, but apparently they did not warn him the smartest man in the world about complexity. If the author has a name, their book will sell, so let's not waste time sorting out the content, right? Hawking spent plenty of ink rehashing energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, but he forgot the more prosaic, "time is money."

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