Given the effect he had on the world of science and our ability to comprehend our universe, you’ll hear a lot on the internet about Stephen Hawking today. He was a truly great scientist, perhaps the most influential since Einstein. His contributions to the fields of physics and astronomy are legendary and immortal.
I’d like to pay tribute, however, to his abilities as a writer. Specifically to his work, A Brief History of Time. I think it may be the best work of science ever written for a popular audience. It certainly shaped me as a science fiction writer and as a global citizen.
ABHOT is wonderfully written, and it never shies away from or apologizes for its subject matter. Hawking takes the reader through some of the gnarlier bits of physics from the very large–black holes and the nature of time and gravity–to the infinitesimally small. He does so in a way that anyone can understand, with very little math involved.
His chapter on quantum spin isn’t just the best explication of the concept I’ve read. It’s the only one I’ve ever understood. He writes about black holes as if he had first hand knowledge of them, as if he’d spent years of his life living among them. It’s a wonderful book and worth your time if you haven’t already read it.
ABHOT isn’t just good, though. It’s necessary. It is vital. Starting with Einstein and Bohr, physics went through a revolution in the early twentieth century. Newtonian physics was easy for the layman to understand. It made sense, good, logical sense, and a thinking person could look at the three laws of motion and nod sagely, thinking yes, that makes sense.
The world of the quantum–and of the very large–does not. Starting with basic atom theory and wandering through the particle zoo, twentieth century scientists discovered that the world is in fact counter-intuitive. That it has definite, clear rules that you can’t work out based just on what you can see and touch.
This realization, that the universe was not designed for human senses and basic human comprehension, created a massive crisis in intellectual circles. If the world doesn’t make sense, how are we to grapple with it? How can we possibly make a place for ourselves in a universe that defies our most basic assumptions?
That tension directly led to the rise of science fiction. Writers like Asimov tried to explain the weird away. Lovecraft, on the other hand, located true horror in that gap between what we can intuit and what is real.
But it would take Hawking, and his little book, to truly bridge the gap. Only a very small number of people really understood concepts like supersymmetry, quantum entanglement, and the Casimir effect back when ABHOT was written. Today, Uncertainty and the particle/wave duality are–or at least should be–commonly known concepts. Even people with only a basic understanding of science have heard of Schrödinger’s Cat.
This is in no small part due to ABHOT. Hawking laid out the concepts in such a way that they could be understood if not easily, then at least with a little work. The reasonable reader might not nod sagely and say, yes, particle pairs make sense, but they could at least understand why they were important.
ABHOT was an immense bestseller in its day. It still sells very well and for good reason–its lessons are still (mostly) valid, and more important every day.
Science is vital to our lives at every turn, and our ignorance of its laws is no excuse for ignoring them. As we face a world with an uncertain future due to climate change, as we struggle to find sources of clean energy and better, faster computers, we rely on the hidden world constantly. The world that Stephen Hawking made manifest, the world he inhabited in a way that only genius can.