A Briefer History of Time

A Briefer History of Time, Stephen Hawking

This book starts, as all good physics books do, on a train. Many of the fundamental aspects of Einstein’s Theory of Relatively can be illustrated by imaging you are standing on a platform watching a train move past you, while a second person on the train bounces a ping pong ball up and down. Aspects of relativity can reveal themselves if you simply imagine your platform is moving and it is actually the train that is standing “still”. Things get even more interesting if you swap the ping pong ball for a photon that is moving back and forth between an upper and lower mirror at the speed of light, and imagine how this photon looks to both the person on the train, and to yourself on the platform.

I have just a couple of criticisms. One is that in trying to make this more accessible, Hawking has actually left behind some significant leaps of logic that in some cases may actually make things more confusing. The secondcriticism is that the illustrations, while quite lovely, are not very illuminating, which is unfortunate because simplified illustrations could actually have helped fill the holes left by the scaled-down text.

In truth, I preferred the original A Brief History of Time, which I eagerly read when it took the popular-science world by storm in 1988.  If I were to fill in some blanks on a past that I only dimly remember, I would attribute that original book to my current nerd-status love of quantum physics. I read it more than once, and every time I had to work extra-hard to make it through the light-cone part. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about.

A Briefer History of Time leaves out the light cone difficulties, but unfortunately it also leaves out many of the (more difficult) bits that helped fuel my current physics interests. It makes me sad to think that some brewing science-interested kid may miss out on a passion because this version has dialled it down. But then, to be fair, maybe it’s increased accessibility will inspire others? (And it’s just got to be said … I hope nobody comes out with A Briefest History of Time.)

Rating: Buy it. For your science shelf. You do have one, don’t you?

P.S. I wrote this about Stephen Hawking when he died, and for me, it warrants repeating:

Cheers to you, Stephen Hawking. Thank you for your book, A Brief History of Time, which launched me down the path to full-on quantum physics geek-dom, and for your continued contributions to the accessibility of physics to the rest of us regular folks. Please say hi to Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman.

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2 Responses to A Briefer History of Time

  1. Chrystal says:

    Isn’t it great that we all have different brains? I loved your review and lovely tribute to Steven Hawking, but I will never read this book. Sorry….

    • Risa says:

      Well, if you’re going to be that way about it, I’m going to return the copy of The Quantum Universe that I bought you for your birthday…