All you need to know about the books you meant to read. This week: Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time By Mike Barfield

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Book: First published in 1988, this purportedly accessible cosmology 'n' philosophy treatise struck an unexpected chord with a world eager for answers to life's two great questions: what on earth to talk about at dinner-parties, and what to give one's brother-in-law for Christmas. But despite its phenomenal success, A Brief History of Time remains "the great unread bestseller''. Bernard Levin once admitted to having been unable to get further than page 29. At that point, the Waterstone's store-detective asked him to either buy the thing or leave.

The gist: Briefly, Brief attempts to explain the origin and nature of the universe by combining the general theory of relativity with the mutually exclusive theory of quantum mechanics. The latter hinges on the Uncertainty Principle - the hypothesis that no matter how many times you read a chapter in a science book, you can never be sure if you really understand it. Hawking's major contention is the "No boundary" proposal - the belief that not only is the universe turned in on itself, and thus without an edge, but also that no English cricketer will hit a four or a six ever again. Current Tests appear to bear this out. Even the casual reader, however, can spot that Hawking's arguments are full of holes: black ones, white ones and "wormholes'' (don't ask). The book concludes with the on- going search for a Unified Theory to explain everything in the universe, and the famous quote: "...for then we should know the mind of God''. But since Hawking doesn't believe there is a God, this is the same as saying, "...for then we shall know nothing''. Pretty much the feeling you're left with after struggling though the book's 200-odd pages.

The author: Crippled by motor-neurone disease, 53-year-old Hawking retains only his huge intellectual powers and the use of two fingers - with which he answers all his critics - and speaks via a computerised voice-synthesiser, producing an odd robotic drone with an American accent. Though often described as an arrogant genius, Hawking can admit his mistakes. In 1985 he declared that in a contracting universe time would run backwards, only to withdraw this claim a year later (or earlier, if he was right the first time.)

The Oeuvre: Prior to ABHOT, Hawking worked on a 1973 volume entitled The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. This hinted at an alternative career thinking up titles for "concept'' rock albums. After Brief went global, Hawking appeared in a 90-second TV commercial for BT, ending with the catchphrase "People must keep talking". This revealed a mind capable of understanding not only the mathematical complexities of the universe, but also the idea behind Radio 4's Just A Minute.