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A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking *****

The one that started it all – at least the phenomenal interest in popular science books. Hawking’s media presence from Star Trek TNG to BT adverts does nothing to trivialize this remarkable book. It’s one of a very few books in this category that continues to fascinate despite the fact that much of its contents stretch the reader further than is usually expected in a book of this sort.
To be honest, this reviewer avoided the book for many years for two reasons.
The first, which really wasn’t justified, was that this was so much a book that ‘everyone is buying’ that it seemed the cool thing to do to avoid it altogether. If that was your excuse too, it has now had plenty of time to stop being trendy, so you’ve no excuse for not getting it.
The other reason it seemed worth avoiding was its reputation as a book that rivalled Joyce’s Ulysses as one that most people never managed to get through because, trendy though it was, it’s almost impenetrable. If this is your reason for avoiding the book – you (like me) were wrong. It simply isn’t true.
Hawking starts remarkably gently, and though some of the contents are baffling in the small scale, provided you accept the standard undergraduate approach of nodding wisely and continuing whether or not you understand the fine detail, you will find that it fills in nicely with only a few gaps left. The most baffling bit is probably the section on light cones, which he doesn’t explain very well, and this may well have turned people off before they got further. He goes on to give some really quite approachable summaries of quantum theory, particle physics and the physics of black holes. I just wish he wouldn’t use so many exclamation marks!
I think the difficult reputation itself reflects the way this book started a trend. The fact is, in modern popular science terms, while not an easy read, it’s quite acceptable – in fact just at the right level. If there’s one small doubt it’s the suspicion that the few autobiographical comments, interesting though they are, are thrown in at the instance of an editor saying ‘put something in about yourself, Stephen, that’ll keep them going.’
The fact remains that this book deserves its place on every popular science shelf, not as a trophy or an icon, but as a fascinating, enjoyable read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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