Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This is a small departure from my reading norm and leaps and bounds above my insignificant intelligence. Still, I'll try to do the review and book some justice. I know I read this book. I remember words connected to form sentences, complete with punctuation. I remember the page numbers going up sequentially until the word "CONCLUSION" appeared marking the end of this journey. After that, it becomes a bit of a scientific blur lost in a haze of terms and theories I might never fully understand even if I had all the time in the world. OK, I might understand it, eventually, but not by the time I finish this book. However, I might pick up this book years later and it may make sense. When I read the Star Wars books a long, long time ago in a house far, far away, I would read paragraphs and chapters without understanding a word and one day it would *click* and I knew exactly what the author was writing about. That's my hope for this book. Of course, having the greatest mind of our time writing this book and expecting a lay-person like me to understand it is akin to giving a giving a four-year-old (who's just started on the Dick and Jane series) a copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace and expecting complete comprehension after one reading. OK, I might be a little extreme on this analogy (who am I to say a four-year-old can't comprehend Tolstoy?), but I think I made my point.

Several things I do remember: turtles! and scientists can and do create their own vocabulary. The book opens with Hawking telling of a scientist who goes through an elaborate explanation of the universe. At the end, this elderly woman informs him, "It's turtles all the way down!" I love that line. I'm not so sure about the concept, but who am I to argue with the powers that be? Suppose they do turn out to be reptiles. I wouldn't want to risk insulting them and turned to dust because I dissed this theory. I figure I stand a good chance by keeping an open mind. Another valuable lesson Hawking felt the need to impart upon readers is the name of quarks where he said came from Gell-Man who liked the name due to his favorite quote from James Joyce, "Three quarks for Muster Mark." I've known scientist have an odd sense of humor, how else do you explain wimpzillas? This is one theory Hawking didn't have to prove to me.

Now for the serious portion of this review. The book starts off with a brief history of science as it relates to defining and explaining the universe. He takes a tour of Aristotle to Galileo to Einstein and how many of the theories have evolved into what we have today. I actually understood most of this. It was like drinking white zinfandel, then came the tequila chasers. Oh, wait, I did mention I would be serious, didn't I? OK, the next of what followed, I tried my best to understand. I even reread paragraphs or certain words, sometimes unintentionally. I've written down names of people and ideas in hopes Google will lead me to the right answers. Things I do recall that make some sense are an astronaut falling through a black hole, the event horizon, Jocelyn Bell, black holes, primordial black holes, imaginary time, string theory, boundaries, he has respect for Einstein and his theories, some kind of kinship for Galileo (Galileo died 300 years before Hawking was born -- on the date!), tolerance for Newton, and there are three theories which describe the possible beginning and end of the world as we know it. Basically, Hawking stated there are three theories which describe how the universe began, but no one knows for sure because they are theories and we probably won't be able to prove any of them in this lifetime and the others will more likely change as we learn new things about the universe. In short, the answers to the universe are still out there and might never be answered, but it's important to keep asking questions.

Aside from having one of the greatest minds of the world, Hawking has a wonderful sense of humor and a bit of a gambling streak as he made several bets on his theories. I actually found myself laughing at some of the things he wrote. Still couldn't understand most of it, but the humor did help. It's difficult not to admire the man. He was diagnosed with ALS, still finished his degree and got married because the disease didn't spread as they thought and he intended to get married to Jane Wilde. Law and Order: Criminal Intent did a show similar to Hawking's story where a astrophysicist type person leaves his first wife for his second wife then goes back to his first wife. Which closely resembles Hawking's marriages. However, I don't think he wanted to think either wife was trying to kill him. Another thing I observed while reading this book is Hawking tread the line of science and religion very carefully. He tends to go back and forth if God existed, then what was the plan for the universe and did God leave humans to figure things out for ourselves. Religion and science is a tough ground to cover and he seems conflicted in his discoveries in science in how they relate to religion, if they do at all. For some reason, this recalls to me Bruce Lee. My husband's a big Bruce Lee fan and studies most of his martial arts techniques. He mentioned Bruce Lee died at a young age from a brain edema (swelling of the brain). Before that, doctor's told Lee he had the body of an eighteen-year-old despite the fact he was in his thirties. My husband often laments the death of Bruce Lee and questions about it. My philosophical theory is when someone has such a strong aptitude in one area, another area must give. If a person is physically or intellectually superior, then some part of the body must give way to that superiority. I related this to a candle that has such a bright flame it is required to burn for so long then snuffs out. Being a Taurus, I firmly believe in symmetry and try to find the balance in things, including body and spirit. This answered satisfied my husband's curiosity. Of course this is all theory and has no basis other than my belief. I might be completely wrong. In short (in theory only), Hawking's did a great job explaining the history of the universe, if only I understood most of it.


Amanda said...

Okay Christina this is one of the oddest reviews I've ever read. If YOU couldn't understand Hawking, i know I'd be hopeless. At least you had fun reading.

Jason Gignac said...

Edna St. Vincent Millay agrees, on the Bruce Lee Front:

First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

Christina said...

It was very trying to get through it, perhaps that's why my review rambled a bit. It's a very good book, I'm just not intelligent enough to understand it all. I keep hoping if I let it marinade for a while, the concepts will sink in and make sense. Hawking's a very smart man and in some ways can relate theories to people. It's not like most scientist where he just rambles theories, equations, etc. (though he did use 1 with thirty zeroes or some high number several times throughout). It seems he does try to reach the lay person at some level, but I don't know how difficult that is for him.

Christina said...

Very well put, Jason. It echoes my sentiments on brightness and balance.

Lula O said...

Don't you just love to say the word quark? quark, quark, quark

I read this awhile ago, and it was like you say. Deep. Good review.

Rebecca Reid said...

I've started this about three times. I really do want to get it, but maybe I'll just have to enjoy the journey as you seemed to have done!

Christina said...

Somehow, I feel vindicated. I had borrowed the book from a fellow writer who said some of my poetry reminded him of this book. After a while, it became a personal goal to finish this book. I had the book for so long, when I returned it to the man, he forgot I had borrowed it.