Monday, 24 May 2010

Introducing Stephen Hawking – J. P. McEvoy & Oscar Zarate ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point.
This turned out to be rather more wordy than a typical book in the series – in fact quite a lot of the pages are more like an adult version of a Horrible Science book with quite a lot of text and a single illustration. However, there are still sections, such as one where Hawking appears to be floating in space being interrogated by Alice from Alice in Wonderland, where the surreal images take over.
Bits of the book are very good. I like the biographical parts about Hawking, for example. But I’m not sure if he really merits a book in his right, because a huge amount of the content, probably a good half of it, is not about Hawking or his work, but rather is context. So, for example, pages 11 to 63 (out of a total of 174) have nothing to do with Hawking.
What we do get, apart from the useful biographical bits, is an introduction to his ideas on black holes and singularities in general, his demonstration that the surface area of a black hole shouldn’t decrease and his invention of the concept of Hawking radiation to make the inconsistencies between black hole theory and the second law of thermodynamics go away. We also hear about the no boundary idea that the universe is finite in size but without boundaries (in the same way that the surface of the earth is finite in size but has no boundaries, but with more dimensions involved). But we don’t come across any of Hawking’s more recent ideas. There is a reason for this. The book was written in 1995, and this new edition hasn’t been updated (something that must be difficult to do with this format). Fifteen years is a long time in astrophysics. Trivial example – the big bang is shown as being 15 billion years ago, where the generally accepted guestimate has been 13.7 billion years for quite a while now.
Overall it’s interesting, though I don’t think the theoretical side is explained as well as quantum theory is in the series entry on that by the same author. But being so old, and being on a subject who is very high profile but really hasn’t developed huge new theories in the way of Einstein or even Feynman rather undermines its value.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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