Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time has been crushing the hopes and dreams of future space heroes and smugglers since 1988 with theories and evidence that keeps the popular science fiction firmly on the fiction shelves. Since its publication, the book has become one of the best-selling non-fiction science literature ever written and has received world-wide recognition and praise from both the general public and scientific community. Hawking has also published a number of other books on his latest findings and theories, some of which challenge the theories and explanations that appear in this book, yet the content found in A Brief History of Time is still highly relevant to modern astronomy and physics.
In A Brief History of Time, Hawking outlines mankind's pursuit to find a unified theory of the universe. Starting off with the original theories of the universe as theorised by Greek philosophers and scientists before taking the reader on an expansive journey that traverses the edges of the once infinite universe down to the unpredictable sub-atomic realm. The range of subject material covered in the book is quite impressive. New topics seem to appear quite frequently, yet gracefully, as the book progresses and makes you appreciate both the complexity of the universe and the brilliant minds behind the discoveries and theories that make up our current understanding of the universe.
With each passing topic, the sci-fi nerd inside you is sure to be even more excited (even after the major blow of no faster-than-light travel) as more and more of the once unexplainable universe is explained through its well written passages, textbook like chapters, useful metaphors, and some pretty bad jokes. An illustrated version of the book was originally published in the late 90s and revised in 2001 to it’s current state. This illustrations provide the reader with excellent graphics and photos to help visuals the complex theories covered. Still while extremely well written in a lighthearted nature, some of the content covered is quite heavy and difficult to understand on the first read through, especially at the rate that Hawking drops the information on us. On more than one occasion I found myself re-reading paragraphs just so I could catch all of the information.
That said, the amount of information in this book is mind-boggling considering its length. Not only are many topics covered but there is quite a bit of detail on each without being too detailed oriented that would put all but the most devoted physicists asleep. While most of the book is comprised of the general theories and some detailed information about them, there are a few sections where the information gets overbearing. One notable section about the structure and composition of an atom, the quarks that build each proton and neutron, the way they spin having a direct impact on their energy, the particles and antiparticles, and the different quarks designated by different colors is enough to make your head spin yet. While difficult, all of the information Hawking presents feels necessary to get the right ideas across and is forgivable because the very nature of the topics being covered is extremely complicated.
The complicated nature of this book requires each chapter to complement one another. While the book has a textbook-like feel instead of a centralized narrative revolving around a single topic or event, chapters have a logical linear progression with multiple topics building up and carrying from one to another. This linear progression would make this book very difficult to pick and choose which chapters to read if someone would want to skip around instead of reading through the entire book cover to cover and it is highly recommended to read the book from beginning to end to give yourself the best chance at understanding the topics.
A Brief History of Time also focuses on a subject that is heavily debated: the origin of our universe. This controversy seems to be brought up throughout the entire book as an annoyance to Hawking. While this is far from a religion vs. science debate, Hawking does mention the possibility of the creation of the universe by some omnipotent being and that what we currently understand about the universe is simply be the work of this higher power. However, reading this book with the intent of picking up knowledge and evidence that can be used on either side of the argument (religious or scientific) would seemingly ruin the idea that Hawking had when writing this book. Simply put, this is a book about our scientific knowledge of the origins and inner workings of our universe from the perspective of scientists, any other interpretation would only serve to go against its true purpose.
Aside from a few small hiccups, A Brief History of Time is a very real and refreshing look at our universe and the field of modern physics. Of course skewed by my personal preference, the book really starts to captivate the mind around the chapters dealing with general relativity and black holes, two subjects that Mr. Hawking has specialized in throughout his illustrious career, and continues to pummel the brain with near science-fiction level topics until the book has reached its conclusion. However, any science geek (fiction and non-fiction) should be able to find something to enjoy in this book. While prior knowledge of the subject material is not needed, it’s very difficult to recommend this book to somebody who does not care about the origin of or the deeper workings of the universe, or a person who is deeply rooted in their religion as the very foundation of the subject is deeply rooted in controversy. Nonetheless, A Brief History of Time is a thoroughly informative and highly interesting book on the subject of our universe and one that is consistently brilliant and thought provoking.