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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Simple Brilliance!, 3 July 2004
This review is from: Universe In A Nutshell (Audio CD)
The Universe in a Nutshell is the best popular science book I have ever read. Professor Stephen Hawking deserves many more than five stars for this book!
If you have any interest in understanding the latest attempts to create a unified scientific Theory of Everything in the universe, this is the book for you. Professor Hawking has combined many perspectives to show how Einstein's special and general theories of relativity have been updated to explain the big bang, black holes, and an expanding universe; superstring theory; p-branes; how many dimensions the universe has; whether the future can be predicted in a deterministic way; whether time travel is possible; how science will transform our biological and thinking futures in the context of Star Trek technology; and M-theory to consider whether "we live on a brane or are we just holograms?" Although any of these subjects can be found in popular science books, few such books discuss all of them simply and intelligently in terms of each other from the theoretical perspective and experimental evidence.
Those who wonder what science has to say about religious ideas will find this book valuable, for Professor Hawking is unafraid to address questions about whether there can be a beginning to the universe in a scientific sense. What could or could not have preceded the big bang?
Fans of A Brief History of Time (1988) will find that Professor Hawking has made two changes to make this book more accessible to the nonphysicist. First, he as written the book so that you can follow the argument solely through the many beautiful and helpful illustrations and their captions. The method parallels the one he used successfully in the 1996 book, The Illustrated Brief History of Time. Second, only the first two chapters are required reading to understand the rest of the book. You can read chapters 3-7 in any order after the first two, which means that you can get into the material that will be of most interest to you much sooner!
Professor Hawking's sense of humor also lightens the subject a lot. The book has witticisms, puns, and visual jokes galore to make you chuckle, from funny Shakespearean quotes ("I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space." Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2), to images from his appearance in the Star Trek: Next Generation television show (where he won at poker with Einstein . . . and had a mysterious visitor sit on his lap), to tales of bets lost and won, to unexpected comments about the effect of airline food on your life expectancy.
To make the material less dense, he also includes biographical information about the quirks of the physicists who have made these marvelous discoveries.
If you are fairly knowledgeable about physics, you will find this a fairly quick read . . . but one that will stimulate new flights of thought that can keep you busy for years. For example, he describes the physical limits of population growth and electricity being reached on earth by 2600. Then he goes on to speculate about how knowledge expansion through books can carry us forward faster to solutions than our geometric physical expansion. The future may well include major changes in the physical qualities of what a human is, a better connection between our brains and our electronic extensions, and the need to solve a delicate problem of where we should design for speed . . . and where for handling more complexity.
My favorite chapter was the one on predicting the future. My next favorite one related to the relevance of Star Trek to our future. I found the chapter on the Universe in a Nutshell to be the most fascinating as Professor Hawking explains the case for multiple histories occurring based on Richard Feynman's work.
Ultimately, one of the beauties of this book is the marvelous human spirit behind it. Professor Hawking seems like Leonardo to me, bought forward to today to challenge us to be our best as people and as thinkers. I feel honored to sit and learn at his feet.
I recommend that you reread this book once a year, because your thinking will be stimulated again and again by this outstanding overview of how all of our theories of reality may fit together.
One of the lessons of this book is that much of what we think of as "fact" is merely a convenient approximation of a more complex circumstance. Newton's thinking about gravity is a good example. Where in your life do you need to know with as much precision as possible, and where will approximations work just fine? Making that choice well can be the most important talent you can develop.
See beyond your limited perspective to the pulsing reality around us!
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Donald Mitchell

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