Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Lowdown: A short review of theoretical physics’ history.
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is one of the best selling popular science books ever. A Briefer History of Time, co-written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, attempts to do the same with a slight twist: first of all, it is more up to date, published in 2005 as opposed to 1998; second, it attempts to be easier read by being both shorter and by avoiding elaborations which the average reader may have difficulties understanding.
The main goal of A Briefer History of Time is to present to its reader a simple and easily digestible review of modern physics, including subject matter such as relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory. In order to get there the book starts off with the basics. That is, Greek philosophers’ physics, progressing through Newtonian physics as it takes the reader down the path to modern age. Coupled with diagrams and easy to understand explanations that manage to avoid math altogether, A Briefer History of Time certainly achieves its primary goal. It has to be noted that it never deleves too deeply into its subject matter; you won’t know quantum physics after reading Briefer History, but you will have an idea what quantum physics is about and what its key ideas are.
Brief as the book is, I did notice how my reading speed got severely reduced the deeper I got into the book: while the first “trivial” chapters are easy to understand and familiar from my high school days, subject matter such as quantum physics always requires an extra thought or two.
The authors’ ability to put so much into so little has to be commended. However, their insistence on mentioning god on every second page annoyed me more than a bit. As in, sure – we don’t know everything there is to know, but why do we have to draw the god card whenever we encounter difficulties? Obviously, as Hawking & Co themselves mention, science is and always will be a work in progress; we cannot expect to have all the answers. The authors' insistence on going back to godly themes reminded me of Newton: unable to explain why the solar system is flat, he attributed that to god; today we know the phenomenon is entirely natural. Indeed, thus far no one ever came up with proof for the supernatural; and even if someone does, and I greatly doubt that, then the chances of this supernatural having anything to do with the gods our society currently favors is very, but very, close to zero.
Overall: A fine achievement in popularizing science for the masses and an excellent introduction to where modern physics currently is and where it aspires to be. 4 out of 5 stars.

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