A Brief History of Time

For a man who was given just a few years to live in his twenties, not only did he beat the odds but also revolutionized physics for next half a century. In this post, I am going to talk about Professor Stephen Hawking and his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

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I read it when I was still in school, don't remember how I got my hands on it, but on its cover was written, "this book marries a child's wonder to a genius's intellect," and the book certainly lived up to the promise made.

Hawking wrote the book for non-specialist readers with no prior knowledge of physics and astronomy. He clearly possessed a natural teacher's gifts: easy good-natured humour and ability to illustrate the complexities of the subject through well thought out analogies.

The book starts off with an introduction from renowned American astronomer Carl Sagan who declares Hawking a worthy successor of Newton and Dirac. As the book progresses, Hawking takes on the role of narrator, unfolding the stories of man's struggle for knowledge.

Hawking briefly touches upon the contributions made by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, as they go about debunking the accepted world views. Copernicus was put to death and Galileo imprisoned for life, thanks to their challenging questions.

Hawking mentions that asking question is trademark of the human species. It was therefore unfortunate that Copernicus and Galileo had to suffer for being what they were, curious animals, that is all. However, their ideas did not go to waste, as Isaac Newton came along and built upon their works, hence, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Throughout the book, Hawking has discussed various integrations in physics: Newton's laws which applied not only to the earth but also to the heavens in a uniform way, Maxwell's equations unifying the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, Einstein's energy-mass equivalence, wave-particle duality and so on.

He then describes his collaboration with mathematician Roger Penrose, with whom he worked upon proving that if the universe had a beginning, then it must also have an end. They derived a set of results in general relativity that attempt to answer the question of when gravitation produces singularities.

Hawking has also dedicated two chapters to black holes, his specialization. I was thinking, how proud and happy he would have been to see the first image of the black hole! Well, his name is associated with them, anyway, for he had spent more than half his career unraveling the mysteries of black holes!

The book addresses love and hate relationship between science and religion in the latter half. Hawking has tried to persuade the readers to think objectively at all times or at least when trying to investigate the laws of physics. There may come one day, Hawking says, when a complete unified theory will be able to explain everything in the universe including human feelings. That would be the ultimate triumph of human reasoning, he adds.

All in all, the book is a masterpiece. I would recommend it to anyone who is driven by their curiosity. The book infuses our questioning and thinking with a spiritual aspect: why there is something rather than nothing? Does the universe need a supernatural creator or is it governed entirely by natural laws? How do we know what's true and what's not true? Questions of such nature, add to the beauty and mystery of science, and Hawking made it accessible through a brief history of time.

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