Book Review: A Brief History of Time (1988)

From the Big Bang to Black Holes
by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of TimeA Brief History of Time was quite a phenomenon in and around the late 1980s when it was first published. Written for the layman, it nevertheless provides a comprehensible picture of ‘what we know’ for anyone who cares about science and philosophy. I cannot imagine a better introduction for young minds entering the scientific disciplines—particularly theoretical physics or cosmology. In my own case, as one who ventures a number of normative[1] abstractions or values in a sociological context, I’m interested in the philosophical “so what?”[2] that may be seen to be supported by reason and science. I have long appreciated other hard-knowledge populizers: Isaac Asimov, Jacob Bronowski, and Carl Sagan (who wrote the introduction to History of Time) come to mind.

I’d be lying if I told you I’ve fully read, much less understood this marvelous little exposé of the universe by a remarkable man, Stephen Hawking, whose Lou Gehrig’s disease seemed to have abated just so he could get the book finished.[3] But I have spent some time with the book, and obtained a sense of the body of work it represents. Fundamentally, its objective seems to be enlightening the general public on the foundations of modern science. Hawking provides a concise history of cosmology, too, thus giving a developmental context to what most working theoretical physicists and cosmologists regard as the standard understanding today.

So for the modern man on the go, or at least 20 years ago when I first heard of the book, A Brief History of Time, by laying out the essentials of our knowledge of the universe, can make you a sought-after presence at cocktail parties. But you still need to pay attention. Hawking, in the interests of keeping a broader readership, forgoes even the use of exponential notation for large numbers… so you see “a million million” instead of the 1×10 to the 12th power. [My Web page creation software doesn’t seem to have the usual symbols for exponential notation.] What he does, according to the Einstein dictum, is “make everything as simple as possible but not more so.”

So plowing through the discussion of Aristotelian ideas of forces and motions, then Isaac Newton’s mechanics from the early Enlightenment period in Europe, and then into Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity isn’t exactly easy. But it is a lot easier than I’ve seen it presented anywhere else. And Hawking’s prose is conversational, as if he were performing a series of lectures for a freshman physics class—not the class where participants go on to science and engineering, but the class where they go on to, say, business. He also sprinkles in a generous helping of simple illustrative diagrams and figures. He brings lesser known key individuals into the mix of personnel who have moved modern views of the universe forward. I particularly liked the reference to Russian physicist and mathematician Alexander Friedmann.[4]

Hawking’s own work in the field proceeds partly from Friedmann’s conditions:

… Penrose’s theorem required that the universe be infinite in space. So I could in fact use it to prove that there should be a singularity only if the universe was expanding fast enough to avoid collapsing again (since only those Friedmann models were infinite in space).

During the next few years I developed new mathematical techniques to remove this and other technical conditions from the theorems that proved that singularities must occur. The final result was a joint paper by Penrose and myself in 1970, which at last proved that there must have been a big-bang singularity provided only that general relativity is correct and the universe contains as much matter as we observe. There was a lot of opposition to our work, partly from the Russians because of their Marxist belief in scientific determinism, and partly from people who felt that the whole idea of singularities was repugnant and spoiled the beauty of Einstein’s theory. However, one cannot really argue with a mathematical theorem [italics mine]. So in the end, our work became generally accepted and nowadays nearly everyone assumes that the universe started with a big bang singularity. It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe—it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account. [!!!] p50

I love these paragraphs for so many reasons, but mainly they provide vast fuel for thought about a) the relation between mathematics and physics or truth, b) the effect of scientific theories on social thinking and vice versa, c) the epistemological questions of what constitutes scientific proof, and d) how scientific discovery proceeds from open inquiry… e.g. Hawking changing his mind based on new knowledge (quantum physics).

His subsequent discussions of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, elementary particles, gravity, and black holes are wholly worthwhile. Although new knowledge and theories are constantly being proposed and proven—indeed, Hawking himself has produced a new edition of History of Time, and from his Wikipedia page, his mind is still doing leading-edge science—an extra few hours with this book will give you the Gestalt of what “we” claim now to know about the physical universe.

One truly cannot say enough about the mind of the author. He’s a superstar scientist who nonetheless can simplify to a lay audience all the complications of his field. [It’s like Bobby Fischer producing a helpful guide to learning to play chess at a high level. Fischer actually tried this, with Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. Only, Bobby, as most geniuses in their fields, does not make a good teacher.] A Brief History of Time may not be appropriate for SunFLOWeryour local libertarian book discussion group, but it’s a fine companion for anyone choosing to integrate science into his natural philosophy. And, true, if you get the hang of it, you’ll be a big hit at cocktail parties at least until that third martini kicks in.

[1] Normative means evaluative, dealing with judgments of human value. For example politics is called a normative science as opposed to a physical one.

[2] This is from my early days as a Student of Objectivism. I recall Nathaniel Branden stating in a lecture that the three basic branches of philosophy are metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Putting it colloquially in terms of questions: “What exists?”, “How do you know?”, and “So what?”.

[3] Hawking has a neuro-muscular dystrophy that is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralyzed.

[4] “Friedmann made two very simple assumptions about the universe: that the universe looks identical in any direction we look, and that this would also be true if we were observing the universe from anywhere else. From these two ideas alone, Friedmann showed that we should not expect the universe to be static. In fact, in 1922, several years before Edwin Hubble’s discovery [that the universe is expanding], Friedmann predicted exactly what Hubble found!” p40

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