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A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Andrew Dickens, senior writer, faces physics

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This blog will be a brief history of my pain.

Week 3 and a bit

Unlike Tom Ellen, I haven’t been cheating on A Brief History of Time with another book, but I have been a neglectful partner. I’ve been away, I’ve been spending too much time at the office and, some evenings, I just want to come home and watch TV. Plus, communication between us isn’t the easiest. Mainly because I only understand half of what it says.

I mean, just look at this quote from page 28: “It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space.” I hardly think it’s fair, then, that just about every page after that (I’m at p44) has talked about four-dimensional space. There are diagrams to help, but I could really do with an explanation that uses different size fruit to explain planetary movement. (An orange would make a great Sun, whereas I see Earth as a grape or gooseberry.)

That said, some things are slowly sinking in. In fact, I ruined a fun office conversation about the best time travel movies by pointing out that it’s impossible for anything, other than light itself, to travel at the speed of light due to mass increasing with speed and getting to the point, just shy of light speed, where it couldn’t accelerate any more. I think. Kind of took the shine off the Back to the Future nostalgia, anyway.

Considering that, before I started reading this book, my understanding of the universe was somewhere around the 16th century, this is progress. I now have a vague idea that the universe moves, is curved by the mass of objects and, quite possibly, finite. How that all works, I’m not 100 per cent sure, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I’m still struggling with the general vastness, though. Apparently there are a hundred thousand million galaxies, each containing a hundred thousand million stars. It makes Star Trek look very unlikely. Look at it this way; the nearest star is four light years away. That means, even if we could travel at twice the speed of light (which we can’t), then it would still take two years to get to the next solar system, whereas Kirk, Picard et al would rock up to half a dozen per episode. No wonder science fiction writers come up with wormholes and stuff. Charlatans, the lot.

Other things I have learned so far include; the ether doesn’t actually exist, so when you say that “oh, that email you sent me must be lost in the ether” you’re not even lying with the weight of scientific fact behind you; Hawking believes that ‘light seconds’ are a more convenient method of measuring distance than, say, metres; and time travels faster at lower altitude, causing what’s called the ‘twins paradox’ – which means that if one twin lives his whole life at sea level and the other on top of a mountain, the lower of the two will age faster. Subsequently, my next blog will be coming from Nepal.

Week 1 and a bit

Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, A Brief History of Time has taught me, is that an object’s movement remains constant unless affected by an external force. Dickens’s first law of motion, Friday night has taught me, is that the position of my belongings remains constant if I’m affected by alcoholic forces. Which is why, on Saturday, I had to replace the copy of the book (and the umbrella) that I'd left in some dodgy West End bar.

There are pros and cons to this development. The cons are the £8.99 I no longer have and the fact that, due to different size pages, this new version is 10 pages longer than my old one. The pros are that the £8.99 went to my friendly local independent bookshop, The Bookseller Crow, and that, due to different size pages, I drifted past page 13 a bit quicker than I would’ve before.

I say drifted in the sense that a blue whale would ‘drift’ through the Sahara or a slug ‘drifts’ over salt. This book is making me feel stupid. I could understand the ancient explanations of the universe (basically everything stood still apart from stuff in the sky, which just span around the Earth like a giant IMAX screen), but as soon as Newton got involved and Hubble started noticing things expanding, things got complicated. Apparently, there was a point where the universe was infinitesimally small. How does that work? I’m struggling enough getting to grips with the vastness of things, without stuff being infinitesimally small, which I'm pretty sure is impossible.

As it is, looking like a right spod/smartarse on the train with my PAC-a-MAC and physics book, I’m regularly reading and re-reading passages, hoping it’ll sink in at some point. Though, if I’ve understood correctly, that’s not my fault, it’s gravity’s.

Week 1

On paper (as most books are) I have the easiest task. A Brief History of Time is indeed brief, at only 200 pages, and its title suggests some kind of Quantum Physics for Dummies approach. Sadly, I know better. I know because I’ve tried, and failed, to read it before. As if to highlight my past defeats, when I dug out my yellowing copy for this assignment, I found a receipt I’d previously used as a bookmark. It was dated 7 June 2007 and nestled between pages 12 and 13 - a first round knock-out.

I face three key challenges with my nemesis: the first is to get beyond page 13; the second is to finally come to terms with theoretical explanations of 13 billion years of cosmological history; the third is to read it without Stephen Hawking’s computer voice entering my head. Let battle commence.