A Brief History of Time was originally published in 1988 and remains a bestselling introduction to cosmology and astrophysics. It was one of the first books I read on the subject and it immediately inspired me to find out more. It leaves the reader feeling both dumber and smarter at the same time, since it teaches a tremendous amount in just 256 pages, but also shows how little we know. The ontological discussions on the existence of God and the beginning of the universe bridge the gap between cosmology and philosophy, and personal stories about research on Hawking radiation make the concepts feel very human. The author, Stephen Hawking, has sadly passed away in March 2018, but the lessons he conveyed in this book over 30 years ago remain lucid and timeless. There is a running joke of how many people actually finish or understand the book, but no matter what it is worth at least skimming through as it offers a lot of insight into cosmology.
One of my favourite chapters is the first one, titled Our Picture of the Universe. It functions as a phenomenal introduction. It is a brief overview of the important discoveries in astronomy, such as the heliocentric model of Copernicus and Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe. It is told in parallel with philosophical developments about the beginning of time, summarising the ideas of Kant and St. Augustine. Hawking discusses the philosophy of science and the fact that we can never prove anything. Finally, it ends with our pursuit for the theory of everything, which would bridge the gap between general relativity and quantum mechanics. This chapter provides a scientific lens for looking at the rest of the book, which makes the ideas more accessible.
Another great chapter is Black Holes Ain’t So Black. Through phenomenal diagrams and great storytelling the author discusses his journey to discover that black holes radiate heat and eventually die. It’s the single best explanation of Hawking radiation I have seen, maybe since it comes from the one who discovered it. Some of the developments are difficult to wrap your head around, but with the help of Wikipedia and PBS on YouTube you can get a phenomenal grasp on why exactly black holes radiate and what entropy of black holes is.
A Brief History of Time is a classic text in non-fiction cosmology. You will learn about all the thorns that trouble cosmologist to this day, and you will know how cosmological research is conducted. It’s also fantastic to reread, which I am doing right now. Do yourself a favour and buy the most recent 2016 edition, as it offers a fantastic update about the book’s reception both from 2016 and 1996, and also discusses the research developments since 1988.
Hawking, S. (1998). A Brief History of Time (10th Anniversary ed.). Bantam.
Hawkins, D. (2018, March 14). What made Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ so immensely popular? Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/14/what-made-hawkings-a-brief-history-of-time-so-immensely-popular/
Tillman, N. T. (2018, March 14). Stephen Hawking biography (1942–2018). Space.Com. https://www.space.com/15923-stephen-hawking.html