In the universe as a whole, the nature of black holes may be one of the most puzzling mysteries. No less puzzling, in the slightly smaller universe of book publishing, is the astounding popular success of Stephen Hawking's 1988 book on the matter, or anti-matter, as it were: A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes.
Clocking in at just over 200 pages, it was, indeed, brief, but it was hardly the easy read its marketers promised. Nor did it stray much beyond the tone of a scholarly lecture, though at times it did take quick autobiographical peeks into Hawking's personal life. Still, it is just the author's persona that may have been the selling point prompting more than 10 million people worldwide to pick up a copy -- and to have it translated into more than 40 languages in the 10 years since its release.
For Stephen Hawking is an instantly recognizable public figure -- even for those who haven't delved into his so far unprovable theories about black holes. Stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) -- or Lou Gehrig's disease, as it is called in the States -- while he was working toward his doctorate at Cambridge University, this Englishman is known for the keen wit and intellect that reside within his severely disabled body. He uses a motorized wheelchair to get around and a voice synthesizer to communicate -- a development, he complains, that has given him an American accent. He has guest-starred, in cartoon form, on an episode of The Simpsons and has appeared in the flesh on Star Trek: The Next Generation, using the benefits of time travel to play poker with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. (He has said he doesn't believe in the theory himself, noting that the most powerful evidence of its impossibility is the present-day dearth of time-traveling tourists from the future.)
The son of a research biologist, Hawking resisted familial urging that he major in biology and instead studied physics and chemistry -- as a nod to his father -- when he went to Oxford University as a 17-year-old. In academic writing, Hawking had an extensive career pre-History, starting with The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, coauthored with G.F.R. Ellis in 1973. But in the late 1980s, faced with the expenses incurred by his illness, he took up Bantam Books' offer to explain the mysteries of the universe to the lay public.
"This is one of the best books for laymen on this subject that has appeared in recent years," The Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1988. "Hawking is one of the greatest theoretical cosmologists of our time. He is greater, by consensus among his colleagues, than other expert authors who have written good popular books on the subject recently. And he is greater, by far, than the ‘experts' who have ‘explained' quantum physics and cosmology in terms that support a religious agenda." And The New York Times in April 1988 said, "Through his cerebral journeys, Mr. Hawking is bravely taking some of the first, though tentative, steps toward quantizing the early universe, and he offers us a provocative glimpse of the work in progress."
Since then, A Brief History of Time has been republished in an illustrated edition (1996) and as an updated and expanded 10th anniversary edition (1998). In Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, a collection of 13 essays and the transcript of an extended interview with the BBC, Hawking turned more autobiographical, mixing stories about his studies in college and the beginning of his awareness that he had ALS with thoughts on how black holes can spawn baby universes and on the scientific community's efforts to create a unified theory that will explain everything in the universe. And in The Universe in a Nutshell, his sequel to A Brief History of Time, Hawking takes the same approach as he did in his first bestseller, explaining to the lay reader such ideas as the superstring theory, supergravity, time travel, and quantum theory.
A common current in Hawking's writing -- aside from his grasp of the complexities of the universe -- is a sharp wit. In one of the rare personal reflections in A Brief History of Time, he said he began thinking about black holes in the early 1970s in the evenings as he was getting ready for bed: "My disability makes this rather a slow process, so I had plenty of time." In life, he has a reputation for quickly turning his wheelchair away of a conversation that displeases him, even running his wheels over the toes of the offending conversant.
Even questions about his muse are likely to draw an answer tinged with pointed humor. When Time asked Hawking why he decided to add explaining the universe to a schedule already taxed by his scholarly writing and lecture tours, he answered, "I have to pay for my nurses."
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Hawking worked 1,000 hours in his three years at Oxford, roughly an hour a day. "I'm not proud of this lack of work," he said in Stephen Hawking's a Brief History of Time: A Reader's Companion. "I'm just describing my attitude at the time, which I shared with most of my fellow students: an attitude of complete boredom and feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for."
Despite his science degrees, Hawking has no formal training in math and has said he had to pick up what he knows as he went along.
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