The Meaning Of Time

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME by Stephen W. Hawking
Bantam, 1988, 0-553-05340-X, $18.95.
A book review by Mark R. Leeper

Stephen Hawking is known to the world for both what he can do and what he can’t do. What he can’t do is most of the things you can. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a nerve disease that has left him with little more motor function than a rag doll. He can move his hands a little and talk only with the aid of a voice synthesizer. His mind is apparently unimpaired–to put it mildly. Despite his handicaps he is considered one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists. The man who can’t use his body to scratch an itch uses his mind to explore time and space, to explore quantum mechanical particles and the shape of the universe, to see back to the Big Bang and forward to the death of the universe. Now Hawking expounds on it all in what might be the most popular science book since GODEL, ESCHER, BACH.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is a little book. The main body is 175 pages, large print. The book gives Hawking’s view of space and time, all done with only one mathematical equation. Someone told Hawking that each equation he put in would halve sales, so he explains in his introduction that he uses only the equation E=mc**2. The publisher undoubtedly feels, not unjustifiably, that the general public’s mental disabilities rival Hawking’s physical ones. So Hawking keeps things simple for a while. When he calls something an ellipse, he explains that it is “an elongated circle.” If you think such explanations make the book elementary, have a little patience. The easy ride last only for about fifty pages. Then the information starts coming faster and harder to follow or even remember. What’s more, at least once I felt the urge to stop and argue. (I know. “Of all the nerve!” Well, Hawking argues against determinism, or at least that determinism is of no interest if there is no observer making predictions based on the state of the universe. He glosses over the distinction between “determined” and “observer-determinable.” But the complete decimal expansion of pi is very probably one and not the other, for example.) Other parts I wanted more explanation on. I actually tried the “interference pattern” experiment on page 57. You can do it with an index card and a penlite in a dark room, at least it would seem so from his description. You just don’t get his result doing it that way. I shined a light through a card with two slits and did not get the pictured interference pattern.

As the book continues, its comprehensibility–at least to me–is spotty. His philosophical points become questionable. Mostly he is building up to an explanation of why he feels the universe may have no boundary in space and time. Just as the parallels that are used for navigation expand and then contract as you go south from the North Pole. He says the universe expands and contracts. And just as there are no real boundaries on the surface of the earth, so there are no boundaries to the universe. An interesting point, but there are boundaries in just the sense he is trying to avoid. There really and truly is a northern-most point on the earth and you cannot go any further north than that. Further, he claims that he once believed that in a contracting universe we’d have memories of the future rather than the past; though he later rejects those theories, it seems absurd that he ever would have believed them. The mere fact that the universe had reached the peak of its expansion does not seem like it would cause the immediate reversal of anything like memory. It may well be that with the mathematics his heuristic arguments would be more convincing, but without it much of his reasoning is most unconvincing.

Finally, he finishes the book with anecdotal sketches of Einstein, Galileo, and Newton. These are not biographical sketches, mind you, but anecdotes about how hard Newton was to get along with and how the Nazis hated Einstein.

Overall, there is a lot of interest in A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, but the book seems to lack a sort of discipline. It seems more a collection of related articles than a book with chapters that naturally follow each other. It is a noble effort for Hawking to try to bring his material to the masses but to do so this informally makes the arguments less convincing and it seems a much less fertile mind could have written the book and freed up Hawking for work only he is capable of. With his genius and his possible shortness of time, the task of bringing modern theory to the masses could have been delegated.

It should be noted that the book has a useful glossary, though not complete and with some definitions that could prove confusing.

So with my two little Master’s degrees I feel a little presumptuous in saying this about a book by the great Hawking, but A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is a usually readable but flawed book. My respect for Hawking’s accomplishments continues in spite of–but is not enhanced by–my reading of his book. It is decent but not great.

P.S. It bothers me that I never see any references to Hawking that do not make sure you know this is THE great scientist with the horrible wasting disease. Nobody ever talks just about Hawking without mentioning his disability. he has become “the wasting-away scientist,” like “the singing nun.” I have a number of popular physics books but only this one shows the author on the cover and I suspect it is so the prospective buyer will see the wheelchair. There are three quotes about Hawking on the back cover and two of them mention the disability. Hawking himself discusses it inside the book. I guess people can only relate to what they understand