Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes was a landmark work in popular science books. The book discusses theoretical cosmology and was written expressly for the lay reader. As such, it uses non-technical terms and starts from basics to show the development of theories and their implications. The book became a bestseller and sold more than 25 million copies, making its publication a great moment in literature. So, it must have been obvious such a book was needed, right?
Actually, no. Hawking struggled to find support for the book at first, particularly from his university’s press, but he did get one crucial piece of advice from them, which he notes in the introduction. He was told that for every equation in the book, the readership would be halved. This model has largely applied to subsequent popular science books which eschew equations for explanations. A Brief History of Time only includes a single equation – the world’s most famous one – E= mc2. So what impact did this have on the readership?
It is hard to say, though there is some indication through what is now know as The Hawking Index (HI), which is a mock mathematical measure on how far people will, on average, read through a book before giving up. In other words, while 25 million copies of the book were sold, very few of those were actually read. Indeed, A Brief History of Time is often called, “the most unread book of all time”.
As an aside, the HI calculation on other texts reveals Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices as the most unread book (with readers getting through less than 2% of it). A book I adored, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman is rated almost as low as A Brief History of Time which came in at 6.6%. I read both cover to cover, so perhaps the bigger issue is that both those books were bought with the view they aught to be read, rather than with the full intent of reading them like I did.
A Brief History of Time was the first popular science book I read. I have a clear recollection of reading it while waiting for a tutorial to start when I was studying a unit on disease and immunology at university. Why would such an event stand out to me? I think it was because I experienced a paradigm shift through the chapter on string theory. My view of the world changed, and I began to interpret the world and atoms through this new lens. As such, I sat in the first half of the tutorial barely paying attention but having the most wonderful braingasm. To paraphrase Niels Bohr, if you can think about quantum mechanics without getting giddy, then you haven’t understood it. I’m still not sure I do, but it definitely makes me giddy.
Hawking wrote several other popular science books as well as some young reader science fiction with his daughter, Lucy, but this is the book he is best known for. It helped make people aware of him, perhaps in part due to the fact that an image of him in his wheelchair adorns the cover. He didn’t write the book for fame or money though, instead Hawking genuinely felt people should be introduced to the concepts covered in the book in an accessible way.
Hawking worked tirelessly to promote science to people and became a pop culture icon through appearances on shows like The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory, but this shouldn’t overshadow his scientific contributions, which were immense, nor his literary ones in bringing science to the people. He had an interesting life too: He lived for more than fifty years after his motor neurone disease when the typical life expectancy is 2-3 years (though, he was diagnosed at an abnormally young age, which may have contributed to his longevity). He made some outrageous bets on the outcome of his scientific theories with other scientists, and even managed an affair with his married nurse, Elaine, while still wedded to his first wife Jane (Elaine and Stephen later married). The story gets even more curious as Elaine’s first husband, David, helped develop Hawking’s famous speech synthesiser.
Though updated, A Brief History of Time is now a bit dated, and despite being written for the general person, it is still a book which requires work to read. For a more accessible book which covers similar ground, I recommend Simon Singh’s book, Big Bang. Singh is my favourite popular science author, so maybe one day I’ll do a great moment featuring him. Next time though, I’ll discuss another ground-breaking author, who invented the detective genre, but whose life had its own mysterious end.
This post is part of my Great Moments in Literature series. So you never miss a new Great Moment, please subscribe to my mailchimp list or this website:
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