Monday, June 22, 2015
Right off the bat I feel the need to make it clear that I don't know enough about physics to be critical of any of the science in A Brief History of Time, but I can say it is beautiful, comforting, and makes me want to know a hell of a lot more about physics.
Being a scientist is hard. You're dealing with the physical realities of the universe and trying to communicate those realities to people who can't see through the same lens that you're looking through. Hawking does a really admirable job of it though. His writing is sensitive and easy to understand. He's very kind in the way that he writes about the possibility of a God or gods and understands that even if religion isn't a scientific necessity it is a good thing for many people.
I think what I liked most about this book (aside from the staggering realization I had on every other page that humans are really very impressive, and the study of physics has accomplished some amazing things, and that seriously you guys science is just the best) was the way Hawking told the story of the universe while also telling little stories about himself. He talks about his colleagues and students, his wife and his friends - he discusses science as a wonderful, important game but one that's not too serious to joke about or play with. At one point he tells a story about losing a bet on a theory with a friend of his and having to give the friend a one year subscription to an adult magazine, and I think that's kind of adorable. Here's Stephen Hawking, a man who has had a very difficult life and who is held up as the most important physicist since Einstein, talking about betting on science, losing that bet, and cheerfully paying up in a pretty silly way.
That's actually probably the best thing about reading A Brief History of Time; Hawking's frequent admissions of failure. There are a lot of people out there who deny the validity of science because science has been wrong in the past, or because science doesn't have all of the answers to every question about the universe, but what those science deniers don't realize is that they're criticizing the very best things about science. It's tremendously important that we learn to admit when we're wrong, that we question old answers, and that we admit the limits of our knowledge. Saying "I know everything about the universe because only one thing made the universe" admits much more ignorance than saying "I know very little about the universe because the universe is very large and I just don't have the data. Yet." And it's that Yet that I love so much about this book. Hawking is optimistic and honest - he believes we'll learn everything we want to know and disseminate that knowledge to everyone who could ever want to know it, but he is very open about the fact that we're not there, yet. But that's no reason to give it up as a bad job, abandon the asking of questions, and accept only a simplistic answer - that's just a reason to keep looking.
Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books. New York: New York. 1998. (1988).