A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly one of the—if not the—best-known science books of the twentieth century. Its 2005 follow-up work, A Briefer History of Time, starts its foreword with a note on the original 1988 bestseller’s sales: “A Brief History of Time was on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks and has sold about one copy for every 750 men, women, and children on earth.” From the perspective of today’s reluctance to ponder the greater questions posed to us by science (and the even greater unlikeliness that one is willing to pick up a science book at all), I’m astounded that that many people sat down and read a work like A Brief History of Time.
When a book in my genre of interest is that massive, I absolutely must read it. In addition to wanting to know what all the fuss is about, I was also curious about what Hawking would have to say about the big bang and the existence of God—especially since I know that Christian apologists love to take various Hawking quotes out of context and use them to support the Kalam Cosmological Argument. (This is the old argument that essentially boils down to the universe needing a cause to have perpetrated the big bang.)
Of course, I was hesitant to read A Brief History of Time. I know it’s dense and it’s a hard read. If it wasn’t, then A Briefer History of Time wouldn’t exist at all. My husband had suggested that I start with the abridged version, but I think it was my pride as a self-proclaimed nerd that said I had to just give A Brief History the old college try. Well, this book was way harder than anything I read in college.
A Brief History of Time being a difficult read certainly doesn’t make it bad, but I think it’s my prerogative to judge it on its readability, as Hawking states in the book’s acknowledgments,
The basic ideas about the origin and fate of the universe can be stated without mathematics in a form that people without a scientific education can understand. This is what I have attempted to do in this book. The reader must judge whether I have succeeded.
Well, I am a reader with no scientific education but with a desire to understand science better. All things considered, I don’t think that Hawking has accomplished his goal.
It feels strange to not give a book like A Brief History of Time a rave review. That’s not to say it’s not brilliant, because it is. On the other hand, everything Hawking said could be wrong. I wouldn’t know one way or the other; that’s how far over my head it was.
Throughout this book, I had the vaguest of ideas what Hawking was talking about, even when the details of his topic had far surpassed what I could comprehend. Because of this, I think that by avoiding the more technical descriptions and spending more time on simpler analogies and more familiar concepts, he could have gotten his points across more clearly without losing people.
Before starting this book, I had read a few reviews to get an idea of whether or not this was something I could accomplish. Of course, many of them contradicted each other: “I am getting my undergraduate degree in physics, and I still don’t understand this book,” and “I have no science degrees but I was more than able to comprehend this book with relative ease.” One thing that the reviews had in common, though, was that many people seem to agree that Hawking’s talent in grasping physics far outweighs his teaching ability: he often slips from simple enough concepts to very complex ideas in quantum physics, and doesn’t seem to know when he’s passed his reader’s comprehension level.
Seeing all these reviews made me even more sure that I wanted to try A Brief History of Time for myself. Would I be able to understand it as someone with a passion for, but no background in, science?
Even though in the end, the answer turned out to be “no,” I’m glad that I now have this answer in the first place. The newly-revealed (to me) complexities of the big bang just reinforce what I’ve said in the past: your everyday Christian and atheist aren’t going to understand the intricacies of the boundaries of space-time, the state of the universe, and what caused the big bang. If an apologist were to ask an atheist, “Who created the universe?” that atheist shouldn’t be ashamed to say, “I don’t know. It’s scientifically way beyond my comprehension, but knowing that there are entire fields of science who have spent the last century using mathematical equations to deduce why the big bang occurred, I can safely say that ‘God did it’ is not a satisfactory answer.”