“Why does the Universe go to all the bother of existing?” asked Stephen Hawking in one of the most influential science books ever written. Questions like this changed forever the way I see the world and changed my perspective of the Universe. And I am definitely not the only one whose eyes were opened by this seemingly small book.
I don’t mean to overshadow the importance of other science classics, such as Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” or Brian Greene’s “Elegant Universe,” or whatever book turned you on to science. Still, as we are just between Hawking’s birthday and the date he died, I want to take some time and reflect on this masterpiece that inspired such a great number of people.
The story of “A Brief History of Time”
Stephen Hawking was already a well-known scientist in the 80s (obviously, not as well-known as he is now), as he had already begun his ground-breaking work, proving the theoretical existence of black holes, with the help of Roger Penrose, and making the incredible discovery that black holes are not “as black as it was thought,” and that they radiate something later named Hawking radiation. By 1980, he was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position held before by legends of science such as Sir Isaac Newton.
So what made Hawking write the most important (in my opinion) science book for laypeople? Well, although this might put off some readers, it was the financial status that motivated the physicist to write “A Brief History of Time.” He started to be concerned with his children’s education, which made him look for a side-income that would allow him to pay for their education (most probably, their college).
With that in mind, in 1982, he started making plans for writing a popular science book explaining his work (and not only actually, as it is clearly seen). He presented a small draft to Simon Mitton, the editor in charge of the astronomy section of Cambridge University Press, who recommended that he not use any formulas, famously noting that with every new formula added to the book, the number of readers will be halved. That motivated Hawking to include only one formula in the book, with the risk of having his number of readers halved, E=mc2.
However, Cambridge University Press wasn’t the publishing house of choice for Hawking, and that was an excellent decision since Cambridge University Press had readers from a much more academic medium. Stephen Hawking’s idea was to make a book “that will be sold in airport bookstores.” That being a tough challenge, either way, you put it, he found a way through by contacting a more popular publishing house, Bantam Books. If you never heard about Bantam, it should be enough for me to say that Bantam published people like Isaac Asimov, George R.R. Martin, Philip K. Dick, or J.D. Salinger.
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The first draft of the book was finished in 1984, with “A Brief History of Time” being published in 1988. The book defied all the expectations, being an instant hit, with the first run being sold out in just a few days. “A Brief History of Time” spent 147 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and 237 weeks on the Times of London list. To date, there have been more than 10 million copies sold.
If you haven’t read it yet, do it, and if you did, do it again
For me, it was the one thing that started my passion for astronomy and astrophysics. You all have something, the first documentary you’ve seen, the first movie you saw, the first planetarium visit, or the first science class (it seems to me that the latter is rarer). To me, “A Brief History of Time” encapsulates everything amazing about science and about living a life in science. Obviously, it does even more than that by showing me what wonders a man can make, as Hawking does despite his medical problems.
It explained the most famous theories of science, and it did it big-time. There probably is no other book explaining both general relativity and quantum mechanics in such a beautiful way. Also, what can be cooler for a newbie in the field of astronomy than to understand what black holes are? (yes, it’s more than just an object which doesn’t allow light to escape from it). Even more, to understand the most ground-breaking ideas in the field up to that date feels amazing to me. Of course, you will not understand everything completely, because as many wonders as “A Brief History of Time” did, it still doesn’t go to college for you.
What is even more exciting to me was that Hawking also put it all in the context of a “purpose” of the Universe, or a purpose for our existence here, which is something I’m extremely interested in, as a general way of living (well, who isn’t, some more and some less). It feels somehow like a religious book. This is something Sagan has accomplished too, but in a slightly different style, as Stephen Hawking’s book is more “scientific” because it is more technical. You shouldn’t be surprised that even though it has no (almost) formulas, it still is a pretty challenging read. And a very philosophical one.
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Just a few more words
If you already read “A Brief History of Time” (and read again), allow me to make one more reading suggestion: “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays” was another extremely influential book to my development, and I hope you will enjoy it too. The essays are fascinating and written with a lot of humor. Let me mention a few essay titles to make you curious: “Is the end in sight for theoretical physics?”, “Einstein’s Dream” or “Is everything determined?”.
Thank you dear readers for taking time to read this, and as a final thought, I must say that even wizards read Stephen Hawking.