The death of Stephen Hawking in March this year was mourned by many across the world. However, the sadness of the news was tempered by the fact that his death was ultimately unsurprising. To use the chess metaphor from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Hawking had had a very good game, outwitting the ‘hooded one’ on many occasions.
His contribution to theoretical physics and cosmology was extraordinary. However, Hawking was not only the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post he held for thirty years) but quite literally a global super-star and certainly one of the most impressive ambassadors for the UK in the past fifty years. In ever-increasing number, people across the planet were inspired not only by his extraordinary intellectual brilliance, but also by his dogged determination to shine despite his severe physical disability. In short, Hawking became a legend in his lifetime, his professional and personal life portrayed on television and the cinema by two of the greatest actors of recent years, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. BT recruited his legendary voice for their ‘Keep Talking’ TV advertisement in 1994 and Pink Floyd sampled the same in two of their studio albums. Although Hawking must be remembered first and foremost for his work on theoretical physics and cosmology, he also ventured from time to time into other areas, sharing his concerns in his final years about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence and the risks of Brexit.
A Brief History of Time was published in 1988 to considerable acclaim and reached a much wider public when it became a paperback. By 2007 the book had sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
To call A Brief History of Time ‘pop science’ is to belittle its achievement. Yes, it is pop science but only in the most literal sense. What Hawking does in this relatively short book is to provide an amazing condensation of the fundamental principles at work in the universe, eschewing all mathematical formulae apart from Einstein’s celebrated equation E=mc2. It is a work of exceptional clarity, but not one achieved by ‘cutting corners’. All the great names can be found here (Democritus, Aristotle, Augustine, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Feynman and many others). Hawking writes in a way which is both seriously focussed and genuinely engaging. Very occasionally he indulges in some personal observation, but these never distract but gently remind us of the human dimension of scientific research.
Thirty years on, A Brief History of Time remains the essential go-to book for those wanting an authoritative introduction to twentieth-century physics and beyond (relativity, quantum mechanics and much else). The mind of God may remain elusive, but the exceptional mind of Stephen Hawking inhabits every page.