Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

Stephen W. Hawking is probably the most famous theoretical physicist in the world. Nearly everyone knows his name, if not what his specific contributions to the field have been. He holds the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University, which is one of the most prestigious positions in the academic realm. Indeed, the position dates all the way back to 1663, and has been occupied by such luminaries as the great Sir Isaac Newton.

Part of the reason that Hawking is such a familiar name, if not sight, to average, everyday people who otherwise don't care much about mathematics and physics, is that the professor has succeed in this world despite suffering from ALS for most of his life. Hawking is confined to a motorized wheelchair and can only communicate through a voice synthesizer. However, I think it's safe to say that another reason Hawking is so famous is that he has written several books on physics. One of them, A Brief History of Time, was on the bestseller list in the United Kingdom for nearly four years. However, by Hawking's own admission, that particular work was rather dense and too difficult for most people to understand. Therefore, he decided to write another book, this time with "regular" people in mind. The result was The Universe in a Nutshell.

In The Universe in a Nutshell, Hawking tackles a lot of different cosmological topics. Some of these are easy to understand, even for someone like me who has zero background in mathematics or physics, but a lot of the concepts are very abstract and therefore difficult to come to terms with. The book is organized in such a way that only the first two chapters are "required" reading. Hawking presents a lot of basic information and background in these chapters, and subsequent chapters build off of this material. After the first two chapters, the reader may pick and choose chapters at random, with the relative assurance that he or she will be able to get the gist of what the author is talking about.

As I said, I am not interested in either mathematics or physics at all. I received this book as a gift, and decided to give it a shot. I am happy to report that I found a majority of it to be very absorbing and worthwhile to read. For example, I enjoyed Hawking's explanations of Einstein's general and special theories of relativity. I also liked how Hawking gave quite a bit of additional information about Einstein. Although Einstein is obviously known for his groundbreaking equation E = mc^2, I didn't realize how many things he was wrong about and how many other breakthroughs were within his reach if only he had been willing to step back and reconsider some ideas.

Another part of The Universe in a Nutshell that fascinated me was Hawking's discussion of time travel. I like the way Hawking says that time travel is not merely the stuff of science fiction, but can also provide excellent fodder for physicists. Although Hawking ends up showing that time travel in something like a spaceship is not possible, it was still a fun topic that I think most people would find intriguing.

What sets The Universe in a Nutshell apart from Hawking's earlier efforts is that this book contains many diagrams and illustrations that are intended to help the reader visualize the concepts that Hawking is explaining. I found that these were indeed invaluable, and I truly believe that I wouldn't have understood half as much of the book if the drawings had not been available to me.

Some people that I've talked to about the book have mentioned that it is a bit repetitive in certain ways. But it must be remembered that Hawking intended the material to be presented in a manner that didn't require readers to plod straight through from cover to cover. So it's only natural that he would repeat certain key points in different chapters, just in case readers do in fact decide to skip around.

Overall, I have to say that The Universe in a Nutshell is a wonderful book that will satisfy your curiosity about some of the major problems in physics and cosmology. Hawking does a great job of distilling complex concepts into understandable language, so don't be afraid to give this work a try!

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