Hawking, Stephen William. The Universe in a Book Report

Excerpt from Book Report :

Hawking, Stephen William. The Universe in a Nutshell. New York: Bantam, 2001.

The respected physicist Stephen W. Hawking attempts to introduce the average layperson to the physical principles of the material universe in his book entitled The Universe in a Nutshell. Hawking is perhaps best known to the world as the late 20th century's most compelling image of pure scientific genius, as Albert Einstein was the most compelling image of genus for scientific aficionados during the first half of the 20th century. Of course, Hawking took issue with some of Einstein's basic concepts. Hawking is famous for this bit of scientific daring. Hawking is also famous for possessing a brilliant mind, encased in a body that has unfortunately been stricken by a terrible neurological condition that paralyzes his ability to freely move and speak -- although, as this book makes clear, not to write.

The Universe in a Nutshell is a history of the creation of the universe and explains some of the fundamental physical principles behind the existence and evolution of the universe. The book itself evolves with a propulsive, kinesthetic energy that makes for fascinating, energetic reading and is explicitly designed to be more accessible to readers than Hawking's earlier A Brief History of Time, as Hawking notes in his introduction. He focuses on biography of different scientists as well as scientific theory to make the book more interesting, as he chronicles the different ways that the universe has been viewed in centuries past and in the present.
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Hawking begins his narrative with "Albert Einstein, the discoverer of the special and general theories of relativity," and then backtracks to discuss Newton and some of the fathers of modern physics, whose theories Einstein challenged or reconfigured. (3) As well as through biography, however, the creation of the universe is itself told as a narrative, as Hawking attempts to clarify such complicated concepts for the layperson as string theory and the origin and nature of space and time. By using Einstein's four-dimensional space time he is able to demonstrates how modern scientists, such as himself, have built upon some of the concepts advanced by Einstein such as the ideas of dimensional spaces, flexible time and branes and p-branes. Hawking attempts to use common physical analogies when illustrating such complex and complicated subjects: "A particle falling into a black hole can be thought of as a closed loop of string hitting a p-brane," he states, when explaining the concept of collapsing space and the end of time, as illustrated in black holes. (126)

Hawking's attempt to address a lay audience is also manifest in his attempt to focus on such subjects as how relativity and time relates to such media-driven subjects as the prediction of the future; and the possibility of time travel as well as equations and basic concepts. Hawking also explores such areas as the possibility of multiple universes and dimensions, black holes and dark matter. "Similar arguments show that time would have an end, when stars or…

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references to how understanding physics can impact human life on earth in the relative short-term as well as in space and far into the future. Hawking describes how statistical evidence points to the physical limits of population growth and electricity being reached on earth by the year 2600. But by applying the same statistical principles to knowledge as to population growth, to take a more comforting view of things, predicted human knowledge of how to preserve energy reserves could potentially carry the human race forward, faster to possibly attain solutions to this problem of geometric physical expansion.

There is, however, no question that having some background in physics helpful in understanding the text, even while Hawking tries to simplify basic quantum principles. For instance, as the author attempts to explain the rational behind an early and inaccurate Michelson-Morley experiment, when humans imagined that space was filled by a continuous medium called the "ether," he must go into a lengthy explanation how early physics saw "light rays and radio signals were waves in this ether, just as sound is pressure waves in air." (2) In this experiment, because no difference was found in the speed of the two perpendicular light beams, the experiment's observers concluded that ether was non-existent. Still, for a man bounded, essentially, in his own physical nutshell, Hawking has accomplished and understood a great deal in his life and is able to make at least a small 'kernel' of what he as understood, interesting and comprehensible in concrete, physical terms. Also, his book functions as a shorthand introduction to the history of physics, and the different people and concepts that played a role in physic's conceptual evolution over the short distance of human historical time.

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