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The Book Club

Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History Of Time”

This is part of my “A Book A Week” endeavour, an extension of The Book Club I started on this blog when I was completing my National Service.

For the uninitiated, physics and astrophysics are difficult disciplines to grasp, and while Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” uses non-technical terms and generally seeks to explain theories and concepts – primarily of general relativity and quantum mechanics – in a more accessible manner so as to appeal to the lay reader, many chapters still remain a little too esoteric. And compared to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”, Hawking’s book, especially the first three chapters as well as the final one (of 11 chapters altogether), is written more elegantly, but at the same time even with the absence of mathematical equations it also details more complex information which can be challenging to keep up with.

The overall premise was well laid-out in the first three chapters. In particular, the scientific principle of falsifiability – that “any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it”, whereas a theory can be disproved with a single observation – precedes descriptions of the universe and its origins, spacetime as a unified entity of space and time, as well as the expansion of the universe since the Big Bang. He adds that good theories first accurately describe a large set of observations based on a parsimonious model, and second make use of this model to make definite predictions about the results of future observations. Again bearing in mind the principle of falsifiability and the iterative progress of scientific research, Hawking nonetheless avoids definitive statements about the universe as well as various cosmological phenomena, and instead presents different theories and research before summative paragraphs at the end of each paragraph.

Yet this narrative style becomes a little more confusing from the fourth chapter onwards, and as a result the expositions on the uncertainty principle, elementary particles, and his “no boundary” proposal for the universe were a little hard to follow. (Even if the explanations of black holes and how futuristic space or time travel might be possible bring to mind the recent science fiction film “Interstellar”). The general intent of unifying the basic partial theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics – “we do not yet have a complete consistent theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics, but we do know a number of the features it should have” – is clear, though without going through the chapters in detail or multiple times the details are unfortunately lost. In other words, “A Brief History of Time” is probably most productive for readers with some basic understanding of physics or the motion and behaviour of matter through space and time.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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