Dr. Fred Bortz

The Universe in a Nutshell

by Stephen Hawking

(Bantam, 2001)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Readers of The Universe in a Nutshell will also enjoy Hawking's controversial leap into philosophy with co-author Leonard Mlodinow, coverThe Grand Design.

"I've heard all your stories before,"
Hawking scoffed, as he rolled through the door.
"Though a wormhole's sublime,
You won't travel in time.
For you, there's a black hole in store."

In the foreword to The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking admits that the success of A Brief History of Time "was remarkable for a book that was not easy going."

That is an understatement. Despite critical acclaim for the accesibility of its writing, the complexity and counter-intuitiveness of its subject matter probably made Professor Hawking's earlier book one of the least read best-sellers in history.

He resisted requests to write a follow-up, he states, because he didn't want to write a sequel. Fortunately for those who are ready to grapple again with the curvature of space-time, the uncertainty principle, a quantum theory of gravity, evaporating black holes, and multidimensional string theory (sometimes referred to as the theory of everything), the professor who holds the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics once occupied by Sir Isaac Newton "[came] to realize that there is room for a different kind of book that might be easier to understand."

The linear organization of A Brief History of Time, he writes, "appealed to some readers, but others got stuck in the early chapters and never reached the more exciting material later on." The new book requires readers to grasp only the opening two chapters, "A Brief History of Relativity" and "The Shape of Time," before going on to the remaining five which are intended to be independent and readable in any order.

That approach will work well for most readers, although they will probably do a fair amount of head scratching as they go along. They will probably also smile quite a bit, thanks to informal language and a comfortable style. Additionally, the book's design reinforces Professor Hawking's infectious enthusiasm for the subject matter. The illustrations (which are reprised in the upper corners of each page) convey humor as well as providing useful models for understanding complex science.

At times, the author is playful, especially when he looks at how science predicts the future and how his theories protect the past from marauding time travelers out to revise history. He becomes wildly speculative in looking at the future of the biology and technology of the human species, comparing and contrasting his vision with Star Trek. It would be easy to criticize those flights of fancy, but it makes more sense to appreciate them as provocations that invite readers to join the intellectual fray. If they do, they will enjoy the reading experience as much as Professor Hawking seems to have enjoyed the writing.

Physicist Fred Bortz (www.fredbortz.com) keeps his facts straight while minimizing gravity in his science books for young readers.