on March 27, 1998
As a Cambridge professor who occupies the same chair as Isaac Newton once did, Stephen Hawking is probably the most well-known scientist in the world. His book A Brief History of Time has sold millions of copies, a rare feat for a work of theoretical physics. Hawking's perennial appeal is driven by his theoretical brilliance, his ability to explain difficult concepts to lay audiences, and his heroic, wheelchair-bound struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease.
To be sure, Hawking's reputation is not confined to popular acclaim. Other noted scientists, not known to be motivated by sympathy for Hawking's physical condition, have shown the greatest respect for Hawking's work. As Dr. Kip S. Thorne, a physics professor at CalTech, recently said in a New York Times article, "Stephen can see much farther and much more quickly what nature is likely to be doing than most of the rest of us poor mortals. Very few have his level of understanding and insight, or his ability to ask the right questions that trigger others to work on problems in ways they might never have thought of."
Hawking's book Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays continues his attempt to popularise the findings of cosmology and theoretical physics. The book is composed of one interview and 13 essays, most of which were originally given as lectures. Several of the essays are autobiographical. Hawking recounts, for example, his family history, his birth on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, his childhood fascination with electric trains, and his marriage and three children.
Of all the segments of the book, it is the interview that gives the most insight into Hawking's personality and tastes. The interview was broadcast on BBC in 1992 as part of the famous British series called Desert Island Discs, in which interviewees are asked to choose eight records, one luxury object, and one book they would wish to have with them on a desert island. Hawking's choices are Poulenc's Gloria, Brahms's Violin Concerto, Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132, Wagner's Valkyrie, the Beatles' "Please Please Me," Mozart's Requiem, Puccini's Turandot, Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrette rien," George Eliot's Middlemarch, and a large supply of creme brulee. Hawking even says that if he had both physics and music, he would not want to be rescued from the island.
Hawking's wry sense of humor, which no doubt has sustained him through his physical difficulties, shines through in some of the essays. He says, for example, that he has no plans to write a sequel to A Brief History. "What would I call it?" he says. "A Longer History of Time? Beyond the End of Time? Son of Time?" Could someone travel through a black hole? Probably not, says Hawking, because the destination would be as uncertain as "traveling on some airlines I could name."
Hawking's scientific essays are very approachable for the non-scientist. He seems to have deliberately avoided mathematical equations, saying that he was advised that each equation he included in a book would halve the sales. (He then speculates that he could have sold twice as many copies of A Brief History had he not included the one equation E=MC2!)
Hawking displays a remarkable ability to explain difficult ideas through the use of everyday analogies. Explaining the idea that light is divided into packets called quanta, Hawking says, "It is a bit like saying one can't buy sugar loose in a supermarket but only in kilo gram bags." He compares the expansion of the universe in its earliest stages to the rate of inflation in Germany after World War I. This book is perfect for someone who prefers readability over density and detail.
The one weakness of the book may be its perfunctory treatment of deep philosophical issues. In a few essays, Hawking discusses such profound questions as free will, the existence of God, and the ultimate nature of the universe. It can be frustrating, however, that Hawking never comes to anything more than a wishy-washy conclusion on any of these issues. Hawking pokes fun at the idea of determinism (can one really believe that Madonna was eternally destined to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan?) but finally says that yes, everything is determined, although on the other hand, we really have no way of knowing. "Why does the universe bother to exist?" Hawking asks. He apparently has no opinion on the subject, except the following consolation: "If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question."
Hawking's resolute agnosticism and firm equivocation on important philosophical questions is not very enlightening. Then again, one doesn't read Hawking for his philosophy but for his fascinating and thought-provoking descriptions of the universe we live in. Few books serve that purpose better than Black Holes and Baby Universes. I strongly recommend it.
on July 7, 2005
I immensely enjoyed A Brief History of Time, and had high hopes for this book as well. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it is a good book full of interesting things, but there is far too much repitition, both with A Brief History of Time and withing this book itself. It seemed that he explained his "the only boudary conditition is that there is no boundary" theory in every essay. Good material, but you won't find much in here that you didn't already know if you read A Brief History of Time. I would recommend skipping this and going straight to The Universe in a Nutshell, a more recent Hawking book.
on April 20, 2000
This particular book by Hawking explores his personal life as well as the physicist side of life. I become interested in how a man like Hawking came to be after reading his "A Brief History of Time." This book answered all of my questions as he goes farther into depth about how he grew up, and lives with ALS. This book is a composite of many essays, so the reader will find that Hawking repeats himself more than twice. This is a good book, but not quite to the standard as his previous book was. I gave a rating of 4 stars because the title of this book was somewhat deceiving, as an aspiring physicist looking for an educational book might choose this one, little realizing that it focuses much on Hawking's life, instead.
An event horizon is the boundary of a black hole, defined by the light that can reach out that far and no further. Hawking himself sometimes uses pictorial metaphors to illustrate abstruse mathematical concepts, and this one occurred to me by way of an analogy of the brilliant illumination that I am trying to persuade to shine out far enough to reach my own dim wits hovering hopefully in the outer darkness.
The whole `feel' of Hawking's discourses reminds me of the stories I have read about Einstein at work - placid, orderly and without excitement (or should I say `perturbation'?). Genius of this kind seems to be a kind of glorified knack - such minds just operate naturally with concepts of this kind, and there is no sense of effort or struggle. Sandwiched between some biographical material and a radio interview, the main material in this book is a collection of essays and lectures. They include Hawking's inaugural lecture at Cambridge where he occupies the chair of mathematics once held by Newton, and all are intended in the first place for an audience of his peers. On the other hand, where Newton and Einstein did not try to address the general public, Hawking, like Russell, seeks to do just that, and he does it superbly. The style of writing is both literate and unpretentious, and the occasional jokes are very good. Readers who, like myself, are intensely interested in the subject-matter but entirely lacking in natural aptitude for it, ought to find this book enormously helpful. There is a certain amount of repetition inevitably, but the more of that the better so far as I'm concerned. Any amateur trying to get a handle on mathematical concepts like these has to get into a mathematician's way of thinking as best he can and stop thinking as a layman. We can all understand the basics of gravitation without being Newton, but if we are still struggling with the general idea of the General Theory of Relativity in 2006 it's worth remembering that it was propounded in 1915 and that physics and astronomy have came on a long way since then, so we had better get our minds round it at last.
At least as astounding to me as Hawking's triumph over his physical paralysis is the fact that this professor of mathematics at Cambridge never graduated in that subject. His degree subject was physics, allegedly on the grounds that the Oxford physics course was easy. Not easy enough to tempt me away from Latin and Greek, I must say, but doubtless for him. Mathematics is just a technique that Hawking invokes as a tool in his quest for a grand unified theory of the entire cosmos. This, said he 20 or 30 years ago, is something he hoped and largely expected could be achieved in 20 or 30 years. I'm sure we would have heard if he thought by now that he had got there, but he honours us with his ideas at the time of writing on the origin and future of the universe. The main obstacle to the final resolution of the issue is apparently that no one has yet successfully integrated old Newton's gravitation with the rest of it. However he also helps us with some more `back-at-the-office' theory concerning black holes, on which topic he appears to be the leading thinker, and that gives him the opportunity to remind us of the outlines of the most important advances since Einstein, namely quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
The latter principle enunciates that the better the position of a particle can be predicted the less well its velocity can be predicted, and conversely. Since it is necessary to predict both, all we can do is predict the combination on a `smeared' statistical basis. It seems to come into everything, and Hawking invokes it to try to comfort us with the belief that although everything (and everyone) actually is determined by particle physics, the extent of the unpredictability is such that we might as well consider ourselves to be free agents. For once, I would dare question him. In the first place such a view doesn't seem to require Heisenberg - simply viewing the story of the cosmos as a chain of events constituting causes and effects would surely get us that far, as the permutation of these is incalculably large and therefore only to some extent predictable. Secondly, when we talk about `free will' and `determinism' what are we even talking about? I'm often told in arguments that I can think what I like. On the contrary, I wish I could, but my own observation and reason, such as they are, leave me unable to. When I exercise `free choice', e.g. in choosing from a menu, I can quite understand that my choice might be determined by physical causes (whether that is the truth of it or not). However when I change my mind about something factual or theoretical, which is taken as a sign of free intelligence, I do so because I feel that the evidence leaves me no choice, and evidence is not an `event' or a `cause' or any matter of particles or physics. Where does all this leave `free will'?
Those seeking God or a Creator will find that Hawking hedges his bets, so that any capable by nature of thinking what they would prefer to think remain, I suppose, `free' to do so. The issue is beyond me, and my own quest is for a better understanding of the cosmos I have been born into and will have to leave before too long. May I wish Professor Hawking a long and productive further career. We are much the same age, and his 20-30-year estimate for solving the riddle of the cosmos is up around now. If he finds it, I hope I can recognise it when I see it.
on May 28, 2005
The essays are drawn largely from various lectures delivered by Hawking over the years; the occasion of each is mentioned as it comes up. Since they were designed to be spoken, it's worth getting a good recording of these as well as the book itself. I recommend the audio edition narrated by Simon Prebble over that read by Connor O'Brien, although the Prebble recording omits "DESERT ISLAND DISCS". (O'Brien's reading is very stilted, while Prebble conveys Hawking's sense of humour properly.)
The first 3 essays, "Childhood", "Oxford and Cambridge", and "My Experience with ALS" are autobiographical, drawn from talks presented to various Motor Neurone Disease Societies in 1987, with material added in 1991. Much of this (particularly "My Experience with ALS") should be familiar to anyone who watched Errol Morris' A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME or read the transcript (STEPHEN HAWKING'S A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME: A READER'S COMPANION, edited by Gene Stone). To me, this material is most interesting taken together with the film and with Jane Hawking's MUSIC TO MOVE THE STARS. For example, the filmmakers followed up the professor's childhood friends who once bet a bag of sweets on whether he'd ever amount to anything, while Jane Hawking in her book discussed her theory that the professor (like their sons) is probably dyslexic, explaining why he learnt to read relatively late.
"Public Attitudes Toward Science" (October 1989) isn't a history of science, but instead (after pointing out the drawbacks - and impossibility - of putting the clock back to a 'simpler' age) a talk about the need for basic scientific literacy for the general public to be able to make informed decisions. Hawking is careful to make clear that understanding the concepts, not the math, is fundamental.
"A Brief History of A BRIEF HISTORY" (THE INDEPENDENT, December 1988) describes how Hawking came to write the book, first published on April Fools Day 1988, why he avoided heavy mathematics in it, and the predictable outline followed by many popular articles about Hawking and his book to this day.
"My Position" (May 1992) "I would say that I am a realist in the sense that I think there is a universe out there waiting to be investigated and understood...But we cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory...A theory is a good theory if it is an elegant model, if it describes a wide class of observations, and if it predicts the results of new observations. Beyond that, it makes no sense to ask if it corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory." Discussion of how better theories replace less complete theories, such as how Einstein's theory of relativity replaced the notions of absolute space and time, and some discussion of Schrodinger's cat experiment. (This last is even better if followed by reading THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD series).
"Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?" (April 1980) was Hawking's inaugural lecture as Lucasian Professor. This is the first essay that might lose the lay reader, but be patient; various terms left unexplained here, such as the uncertainty principle, are explained more fully in subsequent essays.
"Einstein's Dream" (July 1991) explains the fundamentals of both relativity and quantum mechanics, and why Einstein was unhappy about quantum mechanics. Includes a nice, simple explanation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, ends with some discussion of black holes.
"The Origin of the Universe" (June 1987) corresponds to a sizeable chunk of chapter 1 of THE ILLUSTRATED BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, but the material is organized differently and includes somewhat different details.
"The Quantum Mechanics of Black Holes" (SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, January 1977) explains what black holes are, where they come from, and work done by Hawking and various colleagues to understand them better. Should be read with "Einstein's Dream", since each essay lays some groundwork for the other.
(If you'd care to pursue Hawking's comment that a black hole *could* emit almost anything, see Diane Duane's SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD.)
"Black Holes and Baby Universes" (April 1988) What happens to objects that fall into black holes (where do they go?) and the possible consequences (or not) for rapid-transit space travel.
"Is Everything Determined?" (April 1990) Philosophical discussion; if a grand theory of everything is found that can "explain everything", can people have free will?
"The Future of the Universe" (January 1991) starts with a discussion of prophecies in general, from the Oracle at Delphi to modern-day doomsayers. ("These have even tended to depress the stock market, though it beats me why the end of the world should make one want to sell shares for money. Presumably, you can't take either with you.") Leads into a discussion of whether the universe might expand forever or eventually recollapse, and whether time travel might be possible. Some of this material also appears in THE UNIVERSE IN A NUTSHELL.
"DESERT ISLAND DISCS: An Interview", first broadcast by the BBC on Christmas Day 1992. The show's guests are asked at various points in the interview to name 8 CDs, one book, and a luxury object they'd want if stranded on a desert island. The music is played during the interview (though not during O'Brien's narration on the audio edition). Hawking mainly talks about why he chose each piece (which turns a bit autobiographical for very old favourites), answers stock questions about his speech synthesizer, and deflects questions about his personal life.
This book consists in two distinct parts. In one Hawking talks about his life, and in the other about his major areas of interest in his researches. Both parts of the work are written in clear and understandable language, though I admit that when he talks about black holes, singularities, and the real heart of his work my own lack of understanding and knowledge prevents me from feeling I really 'get it'. Hawking's work in these areas is considered foundational and of great importance. I cannot possibly evaluate it.
As for the second simpler section on his life there is the one overwhelming fact. It was only after he contracted AMS that he decided to get down to work, and become a serious researcher. His meeting Jane Wilde was the key here for this gave him hope for his future. She became his wife and the mother of his three children. And though they later divorced he attributes her with having given the hope and belief he needed at that critical time.
Despite his infirmity Hawking went on to make major scientific discoveries. He at one point lost his power his speech and learned to communicate through a special synthesizer. He is a widely appreciated figure whose 'Brief History of Time' won a worldwide readership. He has continued to speak out on issues such as global warming, the nuclear - war danger, the necessity for human population of space.
The book is naturally reticent about many questions regarding Hawking's life which no doubt future biographers will more deeply explore.
One more thought about the 'scientific work'. It seems to me and this is a layman's opinion that a lot of his work is done in areas and ways which are speculative and not as yet verifiable by experimental test. It thus seems to me that comparisons sometimes made of his work with that of Newton and Einstein are probably premature.
on March 22, 1998
Stephen Hawking, surely the best-known genius of physics since Einstein, has given us a collection of gems. These thirteen essays and one interview comprise a review of where we are and how we got here, with emphasis on Hawking's own contributions, of course.
The book provides us with some interesting insights into Hawking himself. He was unusually slow to master reading (he was a surprising eight years old) and was not an overall outstanding student.
The strength of the book is in the discussions of Hawking's theory of the radiation emitted by black holes and in the presentation of baby universes and their connection to the theory of strings.
The weakness of the book is that too much material is not new. Not only is there repetition within the book, but some material, while interesting, is not current. These essays were written over a long span of time - from 1976 to 1992.
I would make one final comment about Hawking and his work. If science is the art of understanding the whole by breaking it down into its parts and understanding each part, then Hawking is at the top of his field. But if science also includes putting the pieces back together again to come to an understanding of the whole and what the whole "means", then Hawking only goes part of the distance. He's tremendous with the physics but not with the metaphysics. He dismisses the importance of asking questions about creation and God by describing them as "simple-minded". There may be others out there who agree with Hawking that physics doesn't need metaphysics, that science doesn't need philosophy, but I'm not one of them.
on May 21, 2000
Hawking's best known book "A Brief History of Time" is one of the classics of it's type, managing to get across the essential elements of some very complex science in a simple manner. Unfortunately this is not in the same league and appears to be a shameless attempt to cash in on the Hawking name by lashing together a collection of old essays and a radio script. There is a LOT of material which will seem very familiar to readers of "A brief history" and a lot of repetition even between the different essays in the book. Very disappointing - lots of recycled science - and anyone looking for an insight into Hawking himself rather than his work would be better to look at John Gribbin's excellent "Stephen Hawking - A Life in Science".
on December 14, 1998
Lucasian Professor Stephen W. Hawking once again puts "the big questions" into a much more readily digestable format than the general public would normally have access to...and avoids force-feeding us countless equations in doing so!
While there are sections in this book which tend to confound many, it delves into the question of the creation of the universe and the philosophical ramifications of our actually finding the answer to that question. It offers subtle insights into "the man behind the mind" that awes so many people across the globe.
You are reminded many times that it's not the body which restricts what can be accomplished, but the mind...and Hawking's is one mind which knows no apparrent bounds!
While I must admit that this book contains a number of repetitions, this is noted at it's outset as an "at times irritating" byproduct of teh fact that the book is conprised of several essays written over a number of years. This relatively minor irritatation aside, if you are planning to purchase "A Brief History of Time", this is an excellent book as preparation for it.
I would highly reccommend both books to anyone with a desire for the answers to bigger questions than "Where am I gonna eat lunch today?"
on June 11, 2004
I listened to this audio tape on my drive to Vegas. It did its duty in keeping me awake and interested. I have read much of Stephen Hawkins's theories, but never much about his life, so this was interesting in that in included some biographical sketches of the scientist before his brain was wired for genius.
It took this book to remind me that Hawking is in fact a Brit, and that the American accented voice we associate with him is due only to the American programming of his vocal synthesizer. Hawking says that he identifies so much with that voice now that he could never trade it in for a proper accent.
Hawking was a standard guy who could have gone in any number of professional directions. He choose cosmology, but was rather undistinguished it seems until his body began deteriorating, causing his mind to come into sharp focus. His really is an interesting story.
Many of the ideas encompassed in this volume can be found in other works of his, but like a trusted friend, they are always worth revisiting. Some of the witty lines have been used before. Hawking never shies away from his ability to turn a phrase, so when he turns a good one, as if delivering a stump speech, he anchors his future dissertations around the worthy analogies crafted for past lectures.
I really enjoy reading and listening to Hawking. He has a good mind and a nice enough grasp of the language to present his thoughts to a mass audience.