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The Universe in a Nutshell
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254 of 264 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
The Universe in a Nutshell is the best popular science book I have ever read. Professor Stephen Hawking deserves many more than five stars for this book!
If you have any interest in understanding the latest attempts to create a unified scientific Theory of Everything in the universe, this is the book for you. Professor Hawking has combined many perspectives to show how Einstein's special and general theories of relativity have been updated to explain the big bang, black holes, and an expanding universe; superstring theory; p-branes; how many dimensions the universe has; whether the future can be predicted in a deterministic way; whether time travel is possible; how science will transform our biological and thinking futures in the context of Star Trek technology; and M-theory to consider whether "we live on a brane or are we just holograms?" Although any of these subjects can be found in popular science books, few such books discuss all of them simply and intelligently in terms of each other from the theoretical perspective and experimental evidence.
Those who wonder what science has to say about religious ideas will find this book valuable, for Professor Hawking is unafraid to address questions about whether there can be a beginning to the universe in a scientific sense. What could or could not have preceded the big bang?
Fans of A Brief History of Time (1988) will find that Professor Hawking has made two changes to make this book more accessible to the nonphysicist. First, he as written the book so that you can follow the argument solely through the many beautiful and helpful illustrations and their captions. The method parallels the one he used successfully in the 1996 book, The Illustrated Brief History of Time. Second, only the first two chapters are required reading to understand the rest of the book. You can read chapters 3-7 in any order after the first two, which means that you can get into the material that will be of most interest to you much sooner!
Professor Hawking's sense of humor also lightens the subject a lot. The book has witticisms, puns, and visual jokes galore to make you chuckle, from funny Shakespearean quotes ("I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space." Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2), to images from his appearance in the Star Trek: Next Generation television show (where he won at poker with Einstein . . . and had a mysterious visitor sit on his lap), to tales of bets lost and won, to unexpected comments about the effect of airline food on your life expectancy.
To make the material less dense, he also includes biographical information about the quirks of the physicists who have made these marvelous discoveries.
If you are fairly knowledgeable about physics, you will find this a fairly quick read . . . but one that will stimulate new flights of thought that can keep you busy for years. For example, he describes the physical limits of population growth and electricity being reached on earth by 2600. Then he goes on to speculate about how knowledge expansion through books can carry us forward faster to solutions than our geometric physical expansion. The future may well include major changes in the physical qualities of what a human is, a better connection between our brains and our electronic extensions, and the need to solve a delicate problem of where we should design for speed . . . and where for handling more complexity.
My favorite chapter was the one on predicting the future. My next favorite one related to the relevance of Star Trek to our future. I found the chapter on the Universe in a Nutshell to be the most fascinating as Professor Hawking explains the case for multiple histories occurring based on Richard Feynman's work.
Ultimately, one of the beauties of this book is the marvelous human spirit behind it. Professor Hawking seems like Leonardo to me, bought forward to today to challenge us to be our best as people and as thinkers. I feel honored to sit and learn at his feet.
I recommend that you reread this book once a year, because your thinking will be stimulated again and again by this outstanding overview of how all of our theories of reality may fit together.
One of the lessons of this book is that much of what we think of as "fact" is merely a convenient approximation of a more complex circumstance. Newton's thinking about gravity is a good example. Where in your life do you need to know with as much precision as possible, and where will approximations work just fine? Making that choice well can be the most important talent you can develop.
See beyond your limited perspective to the pulsing reality around us!
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277 of 293 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 24, 2001
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A number of years ago Stephen Hawking wrote a book that became, it is said, one of the bestselling, unread books of all time--A Brief History of Time. Now, I, being a physicist and teacher myself, actually read the book when it came out and enjoyed it immensely, though I admit it has its flaws. His new book has many of the same strengths and flaws.
There is no doubt that Hawking loves his work and it is always fun to read someone who gets that love across in their writing. He covers a number of inherently fascinating topics--the birth of the universe, black holes, time travel, etc.--and offers reasonable explanations of these phenomena. This book also has the advantage of being beautifully made and offering much more in the way of illustrations than A Brief History of Time does to help visualize the difficult concepts he is describing. It is in some ways a coffee table book of cutting edge physics.
On the other hand, the concepts described are difficult and no number of illustrations is going to change that. Hawking himself says he tried to write a simpler book this time but he only partially succeeds. Most of the world has a difficult time grasping Einstein's four dimensional spacetime let alone higher dimensional spaces, flexible time and branes.
Additionally, though Hawking always gives credit where credit is due, he's not above tooting his own horn and a current of arrogance runs through his text. The explanations he offers are his own and he often seems close-minded to other ideas. Not that I'm against this, per se. As I tell my students, confidence in the fact that you can get the right answer is a main ingredient of genius. It keeps someone like Hawking working through his unique ideas to their conclusion. Without that confidence, no new and world-changing thoughts would find their way to us. Still, it can be off-putting and some readers might not realize there are other theories out there.
Ultimately, however, this is a book worth reading. Particularly if you like science and you can open your mind to multi-dimensional spaces. Hawking's ideas fire the mind and get you wondering about what the universe is really like whether or not you understand him or believe him.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
People who try to write books about physics or other (to the layman, anyway) arcane topics have a problem: How do you make complex topics best described mathematically accessible to the math adverse layman?
Hawking tackles that challenge in The Universe in a Nutshell. Through simplified text, lots of nifty illustrations, and a prose style that focuses on a short, quick hitting, modular sort of presentation style, Hawking attempts to render the complex and often obscure notions of cosmology and physics simply enough for the interested but uninitiated reader to comprehend.
On the whole, he succeeds rather well. There are the inevitable sections where the translation from math to verbiage fails to make the transition well, but for the most part the accompanying illustrations will get the reader through to an understanding of the primary point, if not the fine points, of the discussion.
A lot has been written in prior reviews comparing this to A Brief History of Time. The comparison is fatuous. These books are aimed at different markets-the prior at the more sophisticated and initiated reader, this at the less sophisticated, less initiated reader. They aren't comparable works-one is intended to be simpler, more basic, than the other. That it is does not render it a "inferior" work. Personally, I think Hawking deserves credit for genuinely trying to provide all level of interested reader an access point to these ideas and concepts.
If you are a more enlightened sort about these topics, skip this book-you probably won't learn anything new. If you think "string theory" explains why those tin-can-with-string "phones" we played with as kids work, then this is probably the book for you!
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In "The Universe in a Nutshell", Hawking takes the reader on a fascinating romp through the cosmos. Many people bought "A Brief History of Time"; not all of them read it through. I believe "Universe in a Nutshell" will be better read if nothing else because Hawking has taken pains this time to tailor this book for the lay reader; in fact his writing style in this book reads a lot like Isaac Asimov, for my money the best science writer for lay persons ever. There is wit aplenty, there are charming digressions into personal anecdotes. This is like a fireside chat with Hawking leading us into following his line of thought.
The structure of the book is simpler too this time. In the first two chapters, Hawking gives the reader a basic grounding in astrophysics and cosmology, just to lay the foundation for what follows. Dealing with relativity and quantum theory is challenging but Hawking manages to simplify enough to get his point across. Happily, his explanation style, keeping jargon to the minimum and making good use of examples and pictorial representations, makes it easy for the lay reader to follow his reasoning. And while jargon cannot be completely eliminated, there is a decent glossary to help the reader.
The foundation thus laid, Hawking then branches all over the universe, from the classic paradox of time travel to the alternative universes of Richard Feynman. The reader is free to choose which branch to follow and in what order - the chapters are not sequential. I particularly liked his sobering discussion of how biological evolution is being overtaken by the explosive growth in information storage and dissemination and the resulting implications for human engineering.
Bear in mind that this is not light reading. The concepts Hawking is dealing with are mind bending and often fiendishly difficult to conceptualize. A prior knowledge of some basic astrophysics probably helps. But for all that, this is still a very good book for an interested lay reader. It will bend your mind into twists, but it will expand your understanding of the world in which we live. Highly recommended.
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62 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I majored in English in college, and barely passed my Physics 105 class, so I think the fact that I found this book more than an easy read says a lot. Gliding through this book was like being the first person on the ice after the zamboni had resurfaced it.
I have known about the idea of time as the fourth dimension, but until I read this book, I never understood it. I now also understand the difference between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics and relativity. The book is an education.
But it is so much more; it's not a textbook, it's a journey. Somehow Hawking has managed to write a scientific odyssey of the type that was previously the domain of writers of Natural, rather than Mathematical sciences.
The book contains copious color illustrations, but it scarcely needs to, because Hawking's language paints a canvas in the reader's mind. The reader is swept up in Hawking's enthusiasm, and like Alice following the White Rabbit down the hole, follows Hawking into a wonderland of curves and contours where time and space are inextricably tangled up, and time has shape. Particles, sheets, and strings travel through eleven dimensions; black holes appear and disappear, and superstring theory and p-branes may hold the final clue to the puzzle of this place where there is no up or down.
No science fiction novel could ever compete with this adventure.
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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The number of books trying to explain science to the "layman" has simply exploded in the last few years. But Professor Stephen Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, remains the biggest star in this field. His first book "a brief history of time" sold over a million copies and by all accounts, the current effort is not doing too badly either. But professor Hawking is well aware that far too many readers never made it beyond the first few pages of "a brief history of time", so he set out to write "a different kind of book that might be easier to understand." Unfortunately he has failed to follow Einstein's advice that "things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler". "The universe in a nutshell" is beautifully produced and very easy to read, but breaks very little new ground and fails to convey anything more than a "take it on faith" explanation of what physicists think of the cosmos.
The first two chapters introduce relativity and the problems of reconciling general relativity with quantum mechanics. The illustrations are some of the best you will ever see in a science book, but there is almost no attempt to try and explain the reasoning that led Einstein to his revolutionary results. These chapters provide a kind of general introduction to the subject and are followed by a series of freestanding essays on various aspects of modern cosmology. The discerning reader will come away with some vague understanding that modern physics has rejected the common sense views of time and space, that general relativity and quantum effects somehow need to be reconciled, that there is something very important called the "uncertainty principle" (even though its not as uncertain as you thought, God may not know the position and the momentum of a particle to perfection, but he DOES know the wave function!), black holes exist, naked singularities probably do not, and it might all come down to strings that vibrate in ten or eleven dimensions (but we cant really know for sure till we build a particle accelerator larger than the solar system).
The penultimate chapter has some interesting speculation about how life and intelligence may evolve in the future and the final chapter gives a very light introduction to M theory, which seems to be professor Hawking's current favorite candidate for a possible "theory of everything": one grand framework to explain the known universe, from big bang to big crunch and everything in between (though, like Robert Frost, physicists are still unsure if it will end in fire or in ice).
Along the way, he tells us several times that he is a positivist, which means he really cant say what all this "means" except that it is a mathematical model that fits observations and makes predictions that work. But this philosophical reticence seems at odds with a persistent hopefulness that the full explanation is around the corner. Why should we expect any such total understanding in the near future? Is it not more likely that in science (as in theology), we have only just begun? That our descendants may well see what we cannot even begin to imagine? And their descendants even further? The physicist Freeman Dyson has said:
"As a scientist, I live in a universe of overwhelming size and mystery. The mysteries of life and language, good and evil, chance and necessity, and of our own existence as conscious beings in an impersonal cosmos are even greater than the mysteries of physics and astronomy. Behind the mysteries that we can name, there are deeper mysteries that we have not even begun to explore". This awareness seems somehow missing in professor Hawking's book (one hesitates to think that it is missing from professor Hawking himself!). Ultimately, this is a coffee table book. Humorous, light, and full of pictures. It will be very nice to have around the house, but it is not detailed enough to actually teach you anything original and yet is too complicated for many scientific illiterates to follow. It will serve as a good introduction (or as a good source of party conversation) but it should lead the reader to other books that do a better job of actually explaining the physics, not to speak of trying to explain mysteries that go much deeper than mere physics.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In literary circles, Stephen Hawking is either revered for his brilliance or denounced for his inability to reach the common man (this is no different than the cross borne by any physicist). "The Universe in a Nutshell" has something for both camps, a very solid offering describing scientific breakthroughs of our mysterious universe and incredible illustrations providing the reader with a picture for the mind's eye. Those with a background in physics will find this enjoyable while those lacking any background in this arcane science will find it breathtakingly informative (that is a promise).
As one of the preeminent scientists and thinkers alive, Dr. Hawking has presented this current work with the wit and candor that most of his contemporaries know him for. Moreover, the content of this offering is explained and articulated with the utmost clarity and lucidity. Dr. Hawking takes on the Theory of Everything in "The Universe in a Nutshell." He provides us a view and explanation of many of our mysteries including Black holes, M-theory, P-branes, Superstrings, Quantum mechanics, general relativity and much more. Sound daunting? It can be however, Dr. Hawking provides us neophytes a view into the scientific world not seen before by discussing each of these theories/mysteries in simple intellectual terms comparing and contrasting the theoretical perspective to evidential matter. While Dr. Hawking's exuberance shines through, the incredible four-color illustrations clarify the theories presented.
For those wishing to understand OR gain an understanding of the universe including its many theories and mysteries, this book is a must read.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 29, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Following up on his Brief History of Time, Hawking here gives a brief (200 or so pages) glimpse into the current state of cosmology. Given that it has a lot of illustrations, this book may have just over 100 pages of actual text.
The concepts described in this book can be rather heady, so it is not surprising that sometimes the reading gets a little tough. Hawking does, however, simplify the concepts enough so you can at least get a good idea of what is being described. But ideas like string theory, even at their simplest, are not easy to grasp.
The book's greatest strength, however, is also its greatest weakness: the illustrations. Many are useful, but others do nothing more than look interesting...they don't illustrate anything. In addition, the brevity of the book leaves me demanding more.
For these reasons, I cannot give it the full five stars. As an introduction, this book is fine, but for anything more, you need to go elsewhere. I actually suggest The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Let your thinking expand to the outer reaches of the Universe, and experience the unthinkable with today's greatest living genius, Stephen Hawking. His explanation of the inexplicable is brilliant yet easy to understand. You may even ask yourself "Why Didn't I Think of That?" As Hawking demonstrates in this wonderful book, and Einstein repeatedly observed, great complexities most often reduce to surprising simplicities, which only an active imagination reveals in the first instance. Hawking's book, like others such as "Why Didn't I Think of That? - Think the Unthinkable" show you that the unthinkable is indeed thinkable by the ordinary mind, and often what you consider unknowable is in fact within reach of your curious mind and its powerful imagination.
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62 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I am a physician but have read a lot of popularized physics. Hawking's book is a major disappointment. That which is understandable (such as the Uncertainty Principle) is given no new treatment. The latter half of the book is completely incomprehensible. Hawking just throws out one assertion after another with nothing to link them logically or even to show how they relate to the physical world. The sections on time travel and p-branes are especially weak and not worth the time trying to read them. Kip Thorne has done a much more lucid treatment of time travel in his book, and Michio Kaku has done a better job explaining string theory.
The strong aspect of _The Universe in a Nutshell_ is its illustrations; even if you didn't read any of the text, the illustrations are worth the purchase price.
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