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.

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