Well, it took me a month or so, but I finally finished reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It was an absolutely fascinating read, and in places it was transcendentally enlightening.
I have to admit, certain chapters did require multiple reads through, but this is most certainly not a comment on the quality of Hawking’s writing, which is uniformly amusing, engaging and generally excellent. It is down to the fact that when this man sets out to define the universe, he’s not messing around with philosophy (a love of mine, but a study which in a scientific age is too sparse on absolutes and experiment to be of much ontological use); he’s going to tell you how the current body of scientific knowledge suggests it bloody well works. I’m 100% sure what we’re given here is about as simplified as it can get without undermining the facts, but even so it’s tough going at some points.
This is partly due to the fact that much of the universe absolutely boggles our monkey minds. The nature of black holes or the actual scale of the universe is so far outside the typical context for human experience that there is no useful was to even analogise it. There is no “a black hole is like-” because nothing else in the universe is a uniform, infinitely dense, collapsed point of spacetime. There is no “the universe is as big as a-” because the universe is functionally infinite. Similarly with the other end of the spectrum. Just as the enormity of the universe is mind-bending, so too is its complexity. What you see every day as wood or water or a dog or whatever is just incomprehensibly complicated on so, so, so many levels. So yes, all of that is one of the large reasons my head repeatedly fell over during reading.
The other is due to the necessarily extremely mathematical nature of the science of physics. I’m reasonably confident that a physics student would be quite happily at home with much of the mathematical rationalisations in A Brief History, but in several cases, but found myself just having to take Prof. Hawking’s word for it. I’d get to a point in an explanation where he’d say “therefore” and I often found myself thinking something along the lines of “oh shit, I wish I’d taken in more of the preceding three hundred words”.
LUCKILY, these situations were actually surprisingly rare. For giving you a feel for how the universe works, where it came from, where it is going and what the dickens it’s all for (spoiler alert: probably nothing. It is because it is because it is because it is ad infinitum), this has to have been one of my favourite reads, up there in terms of “good grief that makes so much sense now” with Why Does E=mc2?: (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, Almost Like a Whale by Steve Jones and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
It’s a beautiful, insightful and surprisingly funny read by a man whose mind is, frankly, intimidating in its alacrity and size.
So go and read it, if you haven’t already. Just keep a notepad to hand, and a willingness to be humbled in the face of an endless mind and an even bigger universe.