Skip to main content

Introducing Stephen Hawking – J. P. McEvoy & Oscar Zarate ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point.
This turned out to be rather more wordy than a typical book in the series – in fact quite a lot of the pages are more like an adult version of a Horrible Science book with quite a lot of text and a single illustration. However, there are still sections, such as one where Hawking appears to be floating in space being interrogated by Alice from Alice in Wonderland, where the surreal images take over.
Bits of the book are very good. I like the biographical parts about Hawking, for example. But I’m not sure if he really merits a book in his right, because a huge amount of the content, probably a good half of it, is not about Hawking or his work, but rather is context. So, for example, pages 11 to 63 (out of a total of 174) have nothing to do with Hawking.
What we do get, apart from the useful biographical bits, is an introduction to his ideas on black holes and singularities in general, his demonstration that the surface area of a black hole shouldn’t decrease and his invention of the concept of Hawking radiation to make the inconsistencies between black hole theory and the second law of thermodynamics go away. We also hear about the no boundary idea that the universe is finite in size but without boundaries (in the same way that the surface of the earth is finite in size but has no boundaries, but with more dimensions involved). But we don’t come across any of Hawking’s more recent ideas. There is a reason for this. The book was written in 1995, and this new edition hasn’t been updated (something that must be difficult to do with this format). Fifteen years is a long time in astrophysics. Trivial example – the big bang is shown as being 15 billion years ago, where the generally accepted guestimate has been 13.7 billion years for quite a while now.
Overall it’s interesting, though I don’t think the theoretical side is explained as well as quantum theory is in the series entry on that by the same author. But being so old, and being on a subject who is very high profile but really hasn’t developed huge new theories in the way of Einstein or even Feynman rather undermines its value.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…


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

Comments

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’…