Customer Review

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Intelligent Layman": definitely worth the mental gymnastics, 12 Sept. 2006
This review is from: A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes (Paperback)
Approaching an edifice of modern scientific literature and publishing such as A Brief History of Time is not an easy task. For one thing, the concepts that are discussed are highly arcane and buried so deep in extra-sensory thought that it is difficult for many to get any kind of meaningful empirical handle on them; and for another, every "intelligent layman" who reads the book feels duty-bound to get some kind of edification from it. It's rather like going to see Hamlet at the Globe and worrying that any lack of understanding or sympathetic feeling makes you a Philistine.

As an "intelligent layman", I felt duty-bound to read what I expected would be a fascinating book. Fascinating it was, and definitely worth reading, even if only to see whether the fuss is justified. That's still for the jury to decide, but, in the case of scientific books like this, the jury has to be the scientific establishment, simply because there is so much here that just isn't comprehensible to anyone else. That's basically inevitable when you're dealing with a subject that isn't understood, and the basic terms of which are always under discussion.

This may seem to be the same as saying the book isn't any good, or that it somehow fails profoundly to address itself to the general public. It doesn't: one can take the view that any new information it manages to communicate makes it worthwhile, and, although Hawking's style is more laboured and less accessible than, say, Richard Dawkins', the narrative force of the book works hard to hold itself together. So we get a macrocosmic "universe" that is more enjoyable and meaningful than the microcosmic atoms, if you like.

What riled me intensely, though, and the only caveat I'd give, was Hawking's quasi-philosophical musing about the role of God in the creation of the universe. This strand, which pops up throughout the book, is incontiguous with the physics because it isn't as coherently argued as the physics and it's actually hard to see why it's relevant. Because they're not very well thought-through or well presented, Hawking's references to God seem for all the world like a slightly patronising nod to the "layman's" inherent desire for quick, empty, mythological explanations to scientific mystery (his or the reader's theism notwithstanding). It's an unattractive feature which doesn't quite ruin an otherwise compelling and seminal book.
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