A Brief History Of My Efforts To Understand Physics

Stephen Hawking summarises the difficulty of his book right at the end. Science has become ever more complex and specialised. All the grand, universal theories of A Brief History are actually the work of experts who only have time to understand their small patch. This breaking down of knowledge into pieces has been going on for centuries, gathering pace after 1776 when, in his Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith described the future of industry as the division of labour. Then in 1988 Stephen Hawking comes along and has a go at explaining the whole of modern physics, with all its specialised fields and competing experts, to a general reader.

Perhaps part of A Brief History Of Time’s remarkable success lies in a nostalgic reaction. People used to live in houses with one big room. Go to Anne Hathaway’s house in Stratford and you’ll see how a sixteenth century hall was split into the rooms of later centuries. Perhaps, in a figurative sense, we look into a tiny room in the attic – where the physicist has a study – and yearn to return to that big hall where everyone is in it together.

So how did Stephen Hawking do? I have to admit to reading general books on physics that I have found much easier and more compelling – Superforce for example, by Paul Davies, an accomplished physicist in his own right. This is a book I read back in the 1980s after failing, on that occasion, to get to the end of A Brief History. But Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous physicists of modern times, isolated both by his esoteric field of expertise and his illness. Looking into the study of such a man increases the frisson.

Overall I would say I caught the gist of at least some of A Brief History, without feeling I gained a deep knowledge of anything. Maybe that is an inevitable part of what us general readers might call the Dilettante Principle, our equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle. You can either know a little about a lot, or a lot about a little, but not both.

I think if I’m honest I was more interested in the book not so much for what was in it – which I often had a tough time following – but for what it represents about the times we live in, where people know more and more about smaller and smaller areas. A lot of good books are like that. They catch a moment.

A Book That Helps

Saul Bellow’s narrator Augie March – a 1930s working class, Chicago-born boy with vaguely European aristocratic connections – tells the story of his efforts to work out what to do with his life. Early on he develops an interest in high brow culture, though the books he reads are derelict Harvard classic cast offs, or books shoplifted in a scam designed to supply students at the local university. Shoplifting and other petty crime might not suggest a good person in the strictest sense, though with his warmth and inability to resist helping anyone in trouble, Augie often seems like a person who is too good for the rough world in which he lives. The writing itself presents a similar irony, breaking all kinds of grammatical regulations, and yet achieving beauty.

Amongst all this confusion you keep wondering how Augie is going to find his own path in life, particularly when he is always helping other, less selfless individuals achieve their own aims. He finds himself assisting a number of powerful people, who he realises manage to “intercept the big social ray, or collect and concentrate it like burning glass.” Tolstoy, in War and Peace, portrayed Napoleon in a similar way, as someone whose larger than life image was due to the way he caught the way things were looking, rather than deciding on the way things should look. Tolstoy suggested that a humble person, like Augie, free from all the “social rays” shining on Napoleon, would ironically have more control over his life. Saul Bellow, in the end seems to suggest the same thing.

By the end of Augie’s long journey it’s not clear if he has discovered the answer to finding a good path through life. The book does not provide any clear advice you can sum up in a review. This is not a self-help book you could call How to be Rich, Fulfilled, Powerful and In Charge of Your Life because categories of good and bad, wealth and poverty, power and humility, don’t make much sense in its pages. There is, however, at least a suggestion of that reassuring idea John Lennon described in All You Need Is Love, when he said: “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” It’s that suggestion which makes this book not so much a self help book, as a book that helps