Friday, 14 October 2005

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) ****

When the original Brief History of Time came out in 1988 it caused a sensation. It was the book to have on your shelves (though there was a certain tendency to admit to not having read it). And it was, justifiably, a great popular science book – yes it got hard towards the end, but it was well worth the effort.
The idea of Briefer History is to repeat the success of the original, but to do it in a more painless way. It’s a mixed success.
In part it delivers. It’s a sprightly canter through modern cosmology and the associated science, and it does it largely with flair and in a highly approachable fashion. After telling us the goal of science is a unified theory of everything (rather a doubtful proposition, but we’ll overlook that), we take a rapid trip from Newton through relativity to the expanding universe, the big bang, black holes, wormholes and all the traditional menagerie of the modern cosmologist. Because the book comes 17 years after its predecessor there’s a whole lot of new material to encompass, which is great, though it does mean there’s not quite the opportunity there might have been to go through the fundamentals from the first book but explain them in a more gentle fashion.
So the good news is it’s an effective look at the whole cosmological picture today – quantum gravity, strings and all (though dark matter/dark energy are rather skimmed over), it has the very positive endorsement of coming from a scientific superstar (the man appeared on Star Trek TNG – what can you say?), and it’s glossy enough to impress the most selective coffee table book buyer. And that’s enough to gain it four stars. But…
But there are aspects of the desperate attempt to become reader-friendly that get in the way in practice. It’s just a bit too glossy (even literally – the pages are shiny picture book pages, which are a little hard on the eye after a while). Leonard Mlodinow was presumably thrown in as editor to reign back any tendency Hawking might have to go off on riffs most of the readers couldn’t follow, but he has also homogenised the quite personal approach that was one of the strengths of Hawking’s original book. And, for a simple guide, there’s the classic error Feynman was always railing against of using labels as if they explain something – so we hear about electromagnetic fields, for instance, with no attempt to conquer the (admittedly difficult) problem of explaining what a field is.
Perhaps worst of the negative side are the illustrations – they smack of an out of control art director. The illustration, for instance, for the idea that people thought the world was a sphere because ships on the horizon appear masts first, shows a ship on the horizon… all in view. It’s a flat earth picture.
Incidentally, Hawking & Mlodinow perpetuate the myth that historically “it was common to find people who thought the earth was flat”. In fact, educated people have known it was a sphere continuously since the Ancient Greeks – the myth of medieval flat earth belief was devised in the 19th century as anti-Christian propaganda. Of course most people through history haven’t had any opinion on the matter, they’ve been to busy staying alive.
Other pictures are less easy to understand than a simple diagram would have been because of all the extra unnecessary detail – a good example is a “ping pong balls on a train” illustration where it’s very difficult to see what the point is. One diagram even verges on the offensive, in a demonstration of the increased attraction from a doubly heavy body by showing a man (Hawking as it happens) “attracted” to a pair of Marilyn Monroes.
This isn’t by any means a bad book. We’ve awarded it four stars and put it in our “near best” category because it will reach more people than arguably better books like Simon Singh’s Big Bang – even so, it’s a disappointment partly because of the übergloss, and partly because Hawking’s personality doesn’t come through as well as it does in the original.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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