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HALL OF FAMEon 22 November 2004
Stephen Hawking is widely acknowledged as one of the most intelligent persons on the planet, often seen as the intellectual successor to Einstein in reputation if not in actual adherence to theories. This book by David Filkin is a companion to book to a BBC/PBS series by the same name, highlighting different aspects and ideas that came from the television production.
Stephen Hawking's own book, `A Brief History of Time', is a very popular and accessible account of modern theoretical physics - it is somewhat astonishing that a book on this topic should have sold well over 10 million copies worldwide, being translated into many languages. Filkin's book looks not only at the theories (many of which can be found in Hawking's book), but also at the personality of the man behind the ideas. Hawking describes himself as a boy who liked to take things apart to see what made them tick - this is a rather difficult enterprise to undertake when dealing with the universe as a whole.
David Filkin and Stephen Hawking were at Oxford together. Filkin was on the crew team, and Hawking was the cox for the team of eight. Filkin writes of knowing Hawking only peripherally then, but being impressed with his determination, something that has continued to show through in Hawking's life, as he battles debilitating illness. However, as Filkin states, it is easy to get lost in thinking of Hawking in those terms. Hawking is worthy of recognition for his academic achievements in their own right - he holds the mathematics chair at Cambridge that Sir Isaac Newton held (and, as testament to its importance, one of the `future scenes' of Star Trek shows the android Data also hold the same chair, mentioning into the futuristic narrative both Newton and Hawking in the same breath).
Despite this brilliance, Hawking readily admits that much of his model of the universe is not his own. Standing on the shoulders of giants, he sees further, but acknowledges his debts to past scientific research. Filking introduces theories of the universe by looking at past models, everything from `turtles all the way down' to Ptolemaic, Copernican, and more modern ideas. Filkin draws in the major scientists of the progress of science - Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Doppler, and Hubble - and shows a steady progress of science against a backdrop of political, religious and social concerns. The early days of the Hubble discovery of red-shifted light from stars and Einstein's change of view from an eternal, infinite universe to one that had an origin is presented in context of Lemaitre, a cosmologist for the Vatican, who tried to reconcile modern scientific theories with the idea that the universe did have a point or moment of origin; this was not universally accepted (no pun intended), however, as some scientists such as Fred Hoyle continued to argue for an eternal, infinite universe with the Steady State theory.
Beginning with chapter five, and continuing throughout the rest of the text, the real heart of the matter of modern theoretical physics, astronomy and cosmology is presented. Filkin uses both the progress of ideas of Hawking, the progress of technology, and the various personalities involved in the scientific community (most of whom who are presented are still alive and at work) to develop the narrative of understanding the universe. Big Bang theory presented in great detail, including some of the more philosophical/theological concerns involved (while some churches applauded the Big Bang theory because it provided evidence for a moment of creation, others decried it as being contrary to a strict, literal six-day creation interpretation). One of the most intriguing ideas to arise in physics as a part of these developments was the proposition of the black hole, a gravitational oddity that occurs when a supermassive object cannot support its own weight, and the effects on the space-time continuum are so severe that not even light can escape its grasp.
Along the way, Filkin describes in historical and scientific ways the development of ideas of matter (atoms, from ancient Greek thought to modern times), light and energy, dark matter, and more. We learn about WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), MACHO men (Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects observers), SETI research (Search for Extraterrestrial Life), and doing the impossible - locating the elusive black hole. How can you see something no one can see?
The limits of observation also play into the limit of the partnership between theory and observation for cosmology. Filkin writes that, through history, there have been historic pairings (Kepler's theories and Brahe's observations make a classic example), but the limits of nature are bumping up against observational ability, and the theoretical limits of such observatories is being reached - nothing at absolute zero can be detected in and of itself, as absolute zero is the lower limit; similarly, very high temperatures render everything opaque and fuzzy. None of this even begins to deal with the observational issue of the observer changing the status (the uncertainty principle).
There is an interesting duality that arises in cosmology - those who think that our understanding of the universe and its principles is nearly complete (Ed Witten, one of the present-day physicists highlighted, speculates in this direction) and those who think that there is still a vast body of unknown information to be discovered. One cannot help but think of the speculation around the turn of the last century, as nineteenth-century science triumphed in its understanding of various things in the world, and intellectual hubris was so high as to make some consider that patent offices would soon be closing, as everything that would ever be invented already had been. The early twentieth century in science destroyed both the intellectual arrogance and the stability of our understanding of the world, and things have continued at a quickening pace for decades. Have we reached the limits? Time will tell.
Of course, that might be imaginary time (thanks to Richard Feynman).
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on 15 April 1999
This book gives a very good overview about man's view on the universe. Starting with the acient Greeks and ending with the modern theories about how the universe came into existans. This book does not talk about the way Stephen Hawking sees our universe (there are only 5 pages dedicated to Stephen Hawking's view). The authors stays very objective about all modern theories, so you can decide for yourself what you want to believe or not. If you don't know anything about cosmology or the universe, this book is really worthwile. Very clear language for an immensly difficult subject!
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on 7 May 2001
As a stargazer though not a physicist/astronomer, I totally enjoyed this book and achieved a new level of understanding of the material. Reading this book was an adventure in itself. Get the hard cover, full of illustrations and great photography
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on 17 October 2013
This book is the easiest one to dive into and finish without any headaches. Better yet, this is actually a simpler version of Hawking's book "A brief history of time". So if you have fancied reading that book but were too afraid then try this one first. The great thing about the book is that it covers the history of the key people in the scientific revolutions that lead to our modern day understanding of the cosmos and it covers the history of the Universe as we know it. The book is also a companion to the TV series although I never saw that. Finally, it is full of colourful pictures and well worth every penny you pay for it.
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on 2 November 2010
This puts some complex subjects into everyday and understandable terms for those without a physics degree. Parts were truly mindblowing, not an easy task as many authors struggle to pitch science writing at the audience successfully.
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on 9 July 1999
I'm only fourteen, and such books can often be intimidating. I was pleasantly surprised to find this book easy to read and understand. It's an excellent book to read if you're looking for a relatively general explination of the cosmos.
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on 14 January 2013
Although I had some issues with the quality of the book (it was not new), this was adequately compensated for by Amazon and it's supplier. The book covers the subject very well, and it is the best book I have ever read on the Universe, it's make-up, and how it's study has evolved to the latest state of knowledge at the time of publication. It would benefit from an update and a re-print.
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on 2 April 1999
I watched a tv documentary that initially got me rraelly interested in the universe. I went to the bookstore and I got this as a first book. I started reading it, and couldn't stop!! This book presents the development of science and its discoveries and thought processses in a very logical, clear way. It's analogies are excellent ex. space-time as a plane, pulling of gravity as a hole in that plane, the workings of the particle accelelator as a big slide....I mean this book really helps you visualize the complex mathematical equations of the Great Minds of Newton, Einstein, etc etc. You come to understand�@(not just read about) the challenges and problems cosmoly presented at each step and how they were solved by ingenious minds. I feel like I learned more from the pictures and the analogies in this absorbing book than in any of my classes at my college. This is an excellent book to start learning about astronomy--you MUST get it, it is worth so much more than what you pay!!
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on 30 September 2015
As a college contemporary of both the subject and the author, this was a book I didn't know about before though I had known of the series it accompanies.
Extremely interesting from a personal standpoint therefore - not least because of my inclusion in the picture on page 13.
Quick delivery of order
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on 4 May 2011
Ideal for a Birthday or Christmas present for young and budding Astronomers! Easy reading from the great man and great illustrations too! Very good value and was in great condition for a used book. If you want things explained in fairly un-tech like terms, then this is the one to buy.
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