A Brief History of Time

Best physics book for the common reader.

Best Book On Physics For layman review a brief history of time

For a man who was given just a few years to live in his twenties, not only did he beat the odds but also revolutionized physics for next half a century. In this post, I am going to talk about English theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking and his all-time best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

I got my hands on it back when I was in the eighth grade. This book marries a child's wonder to a genius's intellect, it said, and boy it did! Not just that, I am thankful to it for having introduced me to another equally great scientist, American astronomer Carl Sagan. He has declared Hawking, in his introduction to the book, a worthy successor to Newton and Dirac.

Hawking wrote the book for non-specialist readers with no prior knowledge of physics and astronomy. As you read it, you will know that he clearly possessed a natural teacher's gifts: easy good-natured humour and ability to illustrate the complexities of the subject with well thought out analogies. As the book progresses, Hawking takes on the role of a narrator, unfolding the stories of man's struggle for knowledge and wisdom.


He briefly touches upon the contributions made by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, as they go about debunking the 2000-year-old accepted world views. Copernicus was put to death for his daring questioning and Galileo imprisoned for life for his very stubborn resistance. The first scientific movement was crushed by the authority of the church but it gave hope to a next generation of scientists. For example, Isaac Newton came along, and built upon their works, hence the phrase, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Throughout the book, Hawking has discussed various integrations in physics as they happened: Newton's laws which applied not only to the earth but also to the heavens in a uniform way, Maxwell's equations unifying the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, Einstein's energy-mass equivalence, wave-particle duality and so on.


He has described his collaboration with mathematician Roger Penrose with whom he worked upon proving that, if the universe had a beginning, then it must also have an end. They derived a set of results in general relativity which attempt to answer the question of when gravitation produces singularities. With this, Hawking earned his PhD in 1965.

There are then two full chapters on black holes, his specialization, hence the subtitle, from the big bang to black holes. In 1970, a young physicist named Jacob Bekenstein made a bold proposal, that the surface area of a black hole's event horizon might be the measure of its entropy. But, if an object has entropy, it must also have a temperature, and if it has temperature, then it must radiate energy.

Best Book On Physics For layman review a brief history of time

Hawking thought that Bekenstein made no sense because the whole point of a black hole is that nothing gets out of it. So, Hawking set out to prove Bekenstein wrong. But, to his surprise, he found that Bekenstein was correct. In doing so, Hawking brought together two very incompatible branches of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics. The black hole radiation was named Hawking radiation in his honour but it is yet to be discovered.

There is also a discussion on time in which Hawking argues that intelligent life could not exist in the contracting phase of the universe, that is, when time is running backwards. Only the expanding universe is suitable for the humans to exist, because it contains, a strong thermodynamic arrow.

For example, in order to live and function properly, we must consume food, an ordered form of energy, convert it into heat, the disordered form of energy, for which a thermodynamic arrow is necessary. If the universe worked in another way, we would not be here to observe it. This Hawking calls the weak anthropic principle.


All in all, A Brief History of Time is a masterpiece. Which is probably why it sold more than 10 million copies and got translated into 30 languages. It is the single best book on physics and astronomy for the general reader covering a large number of topics on science and philosophy. I would recommend it to anyone who is driven by their curiosity.

brief history of time review book

In the conclusion to the book, Hawking says, "..if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God."

This final bit left his academic colleagues thinking, confused and doubtful. Has he discarded his long held atheistic worldview? They thought. Hawking went on to explain later in an interview that he had used the word God as a metaphor or possibly to please the love of his life, Jane Wilde Hawking. Brief notes on Einstein, Galileo and Newton follow.

The book infuses our questioning and thinking with a spiritual aspect: why there is something rather than nothing? Does the universe need a supernatural creator or is it governed by natural laws? Can time run backwards? How do we know what's true and what's not true? Questions of such nature, they add, to the beauty and mystery of science, and Hawking has made it possible with A Brief History of Time.

Also see: The Magic of Reality

Comments