Friday, October 07, 2011

Brief? Yes. Interminable? Also Yes.

Title: A Brief History of Time
Author: Stephen Hawking

There are a number of different varieties of quarks: there are six “flavors,” which we call up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, and top. … Each flavor comes in three “colors,” red, green, and blue. … A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks, one of each color. A proton contains two up quarks and one down quark; a neutron contains two down and one up. We can create particles made up of the other quarks (strange, charmed, bottom, top), but these all have a much greater mass and decay very rapidly into protons and neutrons.

In brief: disappointing.

Even for those not mathematically inclined, the possibilities presented by cutting-edge theoretical physics can be fascinating. Scientific theory tells us that black holes can stretch time and worm holes enable FTL travel. Scientific observation tells us how our sun breathes and how stars die. I love reading about stuff like that and imagining all the amazing stories waiting for us in the universe. Personally, I rather believe that little green men probably are (or were, or will be) out there, because the universe is a big place, and there’s probably a corner of it somewhere for little green men. And another corner elsewhere for pink elephants on roller blades.

But reading Stephen Hawking can sure take the fun out of all this speculation.

I’ve enjoyed a few popular books on astronomy/physics, but A Brief History of Time was a real chore for me to slog through. Hawking may very well be a brilliant theorist, but his writing style leaves much to be desired. I found his words neither informative nor entertaining, just rather dry and droning. The above paragraph is a good example. Hawking presents the reader with this absolutely fascinating nugget of information that there are things called charmed quarks out there. Wow, cool! So, what makes a quark charmed? I have no idea. Not one. Hawking never explains. I found this incredibly frustrating.

I was able to glean a few nuggets of understanding from A Brief History, but mostly about things I already knew (or had known once and forgotten). His explanation of red shift is fairly decent, and he does do justice to the basics of black holes. But when he then launched into more advanced theory (how black holes emit radiation, for instance) … well, I simply fell off that FTL rocket ship and could not keep up.

Admittedly, I may just be dim. At the very least, I know I learn far better through stories than through mathematics or memorization. (I think Brian Greene’s “Icarus at the Edge of Time” is simply brilliant.) But I thought A Brief History was supposed to be written for people like me: dim, perhaps, but eager to learn nonetheless.

Despite my dissatisfaction with it, I’d still recommend A Brief History. It's shiny gold cover will look good sitting on your coffee table, and you’ll be able to impress others by casually mentioning that you read it. (Although perhaps you’d be able to impress them even more by saying you found it to be trite and uninspiring!) But if you really want to understand topics such as relativity, blacks holes, and quantum mechanics, you’d be far better off with something like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It may not be brief, but it sure goes down easier.

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posted by Elizabeth at 8:58 PM


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