Skip to main content

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) ****

When the original Brief History of Time came out in 1988 it caused a sensation. It was the book to have on your shelves (though there was a certain tendency to admit to not having read it). And it was, justifiably, a great popular science book – yes it got hard towards the end, but it was well worth the effort.
The idea of Briefer History is to repeat the success of the original, but to do it in a more painless way. It’s a mixed success.
In part it delivers. It’s a sprightly canter through modern cosmology and the associated science, and it does it largely with flair and in a highly approachable fashion. After telling us the goal of science is a unified theory of everything (rather a doubtful proposition, but we’ll overlook that), we take a rapid trip from Newton through relativity to the expanding universe, the big bang, black holes, wormholes and all the traditional menagerie of the modern cosmologist. Because the book comes 17 years after its predecessor there’s a whole lot of new material to encompass, which is great, though it does mean there’s not quite the opportunity there might have been to go through the fundamentals from the first book but explain them in a more gentle fashion.
So the good news is it’s an effective look at the whole cosmological picture today – quantum gravity, strings and all (though dark matter/dark energy are rather skimmed over), it has the very positive endorsement of coming from a scientific superstar (the man appeared on Star Trek TNG – what can you say?), and it’s glossy enough to impress the most selective coffee table book buyer. And that’s enough to gain it four stars. But…
But there are aspects of the desperate attempt to become reader-friendly that get in the way in practice. It’s just a bit too glossy (even literally – the pages are shiny picture book pages, which are a little hard on the eye after a while). Leonard Mlodinow was presumably thrown in as editor to reign back any tendency Hawking might have to go off on riffs most of the readers couldn’t follow, but he has also homogenised the quite personal approach that was one of the strengths of Hawking’s original book. And, for a simple guide, there’s the classic error Feynman was always railing against of using labels as if they explain something – so we hear about electromagnetic fields, for instance, with no attempt to conquer the (admittedly difficult) problem of explaining what a field is.
Perhaps worst of the negative side are the illustrations – they smack of an out of control art director. The illustration, for instance, for the idea that people thought the world was a sphere because ships on the horizon appear masts first, shows a ship on the horizon… all in view. It’s a flat earth picture.
Incidentally, Hawking & Mlodinow perpetuate the myth that historically “it was common to find people who thought the earth was flat”. In fact, educated people have known it was a sphere continuously since the Ancient Greeks – the myth of medieval flat earth belief was devised in the 19th century as anti-Christian propaganda. Of course most people through history haven’t had any opinion on the matter, they’ve been to busy staying alive.
Other pictures are less easy to understand than a simple diagram would have been because of all the extra unnecessary detail – a good example is a “ping pong balls on a train” illustration where it’s very difficult to see what the point is. One diagram even verges on the offensive, in a demonstration of the increased attraction from a doubly heavy body by showing a man (Hawking as it happens) “attracted” to a pair of Marilyn Monroes.
This isn’t by any means a bad book. We’ve awarded it four stars and put it in our “near best” category because it will reach more people than arguably better books like Simon Singh’s Big Bang – even so, it’s a disappointment partly because of the übergloss, and partly because Hawking’s personality doesn’t come through as well as it does in the original.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…