Aug 012011
 

Briefer History of Time
Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**I’m not really sure you can have spoilers in a non-fiction book and one that was extensively discussed in the press, but if so, there is a tiny bit of a spoiler four paragraphs down and on.**

In preparation for my next-next novel, I decided to read the briefer (and, I assume, easier) of Stephen Hawking’s books on time and space for the lay person. It’s something I would’ve been loathe to do even six months ago because of the state of my reading ability. But Goodreads has done for me what I’d hoped it would: gotten me to practice, practice, practice reading. And as you know, practice makes better and gives a person the confidence to try harder material. Also my rehab team had told me when choosing books that material I was already familiar with would be easier to read than new material. Fortunately, I am familiar with all of the physics discussed in this book up until about the 1980s and Feynman’s work. I just didn’t recall it all that well.

Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow (of Star Trek: The Next Generation) do a nice job of building the physics story from centuries ago up to the present day. You get a good sense of how laws and theories progressed and of the obstacles the various physicists faced, whether from within their own theories, from their rivals, or from the politics of the day. By the time you get to the meat of the book — Einstein — you’ve received a good background.

But that’s when I ran into problems. The language was as simple as could be. They used effective illustrations, for the most part, to help you visualize what they’re talking about. I liked how they inserted Hawking into some of the images. They also came up with examples people could relate to to help explain these mind-bending concepts. Unfortunately, when they got to the good stuff on time, their language broke down. Maybe the editor had a brain cramp or something because a key example was rather imprecise.

“Suppose that one twin goes to live on the top of a mountain while the other stays at sea level. The first twin would age faster than the second. Thus, if they met again, one would be older than the other.” (pg 43)

OK, so twin #1 is at the top and is older than twin #2 at the earth’s surface, right? I assume that based on logic sequence — the first twin mentioned is the one on the mountain, and so must be “first twin.” However, I did have to assume, and that’s the trouble, for then came this passage:

“…if one of the twins went for a long trip in a spaceship in which he accelerated to nearly the speed of light. When he returned, he would be much younger than the one who stayed on earth.”

Um, isn’t the one in the spaceship like the one on the mountain? This confusion could’ve been avoided with some judicious editing. It happens again elsewhere, but only this one made me really go spare. Luckily, I have an engineer friend I could confer with, and I decided to forget the mountain man example and focus on rocket man.

In a way, this is a small quibble except for the fact that this book is aimed at a lay audience, whose physics knowledge is low and thus will need the authors to connect the dots for them with clear, precise language.

The chapter on going back in time was interesting. I learnt something new physics-wise although Hawking’s philosophizing against backward time travel was not new as his stance has been discussed many times in the popular press or on television. Physics is, in a sense, about philosophy because to get to a new theory you have to think about the possibilities and the whys and wherefores of both sides of the equation. Still, Hawking focuses on the reasons against backward time travel to such an extent that his ending statement that “the possibility of time travel remains open” comes as a bit of a surprise.

I like their little bios at the end, especially of Newton. I had no idea he was a man such as that! All in all, a good read, and it has given me a few ideas too for my novel.

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