Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking is a writer of cosmological space westerns, the most famous of which is this book, A Brief History of Time. His use of literary devices such as imaginary time and virtual particles makes our universe seem like the world of Bizarro in Superman comics, or an updated version of Alice in Wonderland.


First of all there’s Newton, a rather nasty fellow who pursued counterfeiters all the way to the gallows. Einstein was much nicer, but he disliked gambling, especially with dice. Heisenberg couldn’t make up his mind about anything, Godel proved nothing was provable, and Feynman said everything was possible. Fortunately most of these guys have a sense of humour, like the comedy team of Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow.

The villains of the book are as odd a bunch as you’ll find this side of a pack of cards. There’s a secret society of Mesons, and a couple of clowns named P-Brane and Glueball, and the weak but chubby Massive Vector Bosons.

Then there’s the Quarks, a slippery bunch named after a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and described by Hawking as “somewhat metaphysical.” Thus did modern literature influence particle physics – not just in the trivial matter of names, but in the very subjectivity of existence.

Or to put it another way, stream-of-consciousness helped pave the way for quantum mechanics.


This is your basic coming-of-age story.


A black hole has no hair.

String theory is rather like plumbing.

The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

The total energy of the universe is exactly zero.

Why do we remember the past but not the future?

An ordinary particle moving forward in time is equivalent to an antiparticle moving backward in time.

Black holes are not really black.

The Author

In my copy of this book, the previous owner had left a newspaper clipping dated 1995. It announced Hawking's second marriage. His first wife was quoted as saying that Hawking “is in the grip of forces that he can’t control.”

Of course, that is literally quite true. In 1963 he was diagnosed with ALS and given no more than two years to live. Yet despite being almost completely paralyzed and no longer able to speak, he's become a world-famous theoretical physicist and cultural icon. He’s addressed NASA, experienced zero-G, and appeared on numerous TV shows, including a famous episode of ST:TNG.

His picture on the book’s cover -- a crumpled body against a backdrop of stars -- sums up the pathos of human existence.

A Brief History of A Brief History

1988 - A Brief History of Time
1996 - The Illustrated A Brief History of Time: Updated and Expanded Edition
1998 - A Brief History of Time: Updated and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition
2005 - A Briefer History of Time (with Leonard Mlodinow)
2008 - A Brief History of Time: 20th Anniversary Edition

More Cosmological Westerns

Interested readers might try the Shrodinger's Cat trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson, and The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind.