A Brief History of Time | Study Guide

Stephen Hawking

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A Brief History of Time | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Stephen Hawking earned recognizability in the late 20th century far beyond his work in the fields of physics and mathematics. Part of the brilliant scientist's appeal is his ability to explain incredibly complex theories in understandable ways. Hawking's 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, explains concepts such as gravity, time, and fundamental components of the universe to readers without the academic backgrounds necessary to study such phenomena. With sales of more than 10 million copies, A Brief History of Time has succeeded in making the seemingly inaccessible accessible to curious readers around the world, and it has helped to establish Hawking as a household name.

1. Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time to help pay his daughter's tuition.

Hawking stated he wrote A Brief History of Time to help make complex systematic theories accessible to those outside the scientific community. However, he's also listed a more pragmatic reason for writing the book: his daughter's tuition costs. After A Brief History of Time's success upon publication, Hawking stated:

I am still rather taken aback by the reception given to my book ... This was much more than I expected when I first had the idea in 1982 of writing a popular book about the universe. The intention was partly to earn money to pay my daughter's school fees.

2. One of the most famous lines in A Brief History of Time was almost cut by Hawking's editor.

One of the most notable lines in A Brief History of Time compares the study of the universe to "knowing the mind of God." Hawking's editor, Peter Guzzardi, originally wanted to have this phrase cut from the text, as it might confuse readers, given Hawking's resistance to explaining scientific phenomena through religion. Guzzardi also persuaded Hawking to avoid including too many equations in the text, since the book was designed to appeal to a general audience without backgrounds in math or science. Hawking only explains one mathematical equation in the book: Einstein's famous E = mc2.

3. One of Hawking's most fundamental points in A Brief History of Time is illustrated with turtles.

In order to explain a key point, Hawking uses a unique metaphor to illustrate the possibility of an infinite universe: a ladder of turtles. The comparison cites the mythological view of the universe as a totem pole, with a turtle standing at the bottom and supporting the world. He contrasts this image with the concept of infinity, which he describes as "turtles all the way down." This metaphor illustrates two theories—both accepted by leading physicists—about whether or not there is a "starting point" or fundamental base of the universe's existence. "All the way down" refers to the possibility there is no starting point, and the universe therefore does not have a beginning in the traditional sense.

4. Despite his use of the word God, Hawking doesn't believe in an afterlife or a creating deity.

Throughout his career, Hawking has made it clear he believes the universe can be explained with mathematical and scientific principles, resisting the urge to credit any aspect of creation to a deity. When asked about this in connection with his use of the phrase "knowing the mind of God" in A Brief History of Time, Hawking responded:

I used the word "God" like Einstein did as a shorthand for the laws of physics ... The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a God.

Hawking has also expressed the opinion the concept of an afterlife is simply a comforting mechanism for those who fear death, referring to notions such as Heaven as "fairy stories."

5. A fascinating black hole phenomenon is named after Hawking.

One of Hawking's greatest scientific achievements has been his research into and explanation of black holes. One particular theory involving black holes—which Hawking discovered—now bears his name. "Hawking radiation" refers to energy released by black holes that eventually leads to their decline and destruction. Despite the ability of a black hole to absorb any matter within its gravitational reach, including light, Hawking radiation is the energy put back into the universe.

6. Hawking inspired a rapper.

In addition to Hawking's profound impact on the scientific community, he's also become a beloved figure in popular culture. A rapper known as "MC Hawking" produces hip-hop music with lyrics that pay homage to Hawking's mathematical theories and discoveries in quantum physics. Claiming to represent the "Nerdcore" music scene, MC Hawking's website states, "Yo, this is the ultimate site devoted to Stephen Hawking the nerdcore rapper; the undisputed king of theoretical gangsta-astrophysics."

7. Hawking initially didn't like the word brief in the book's title.

Since A Brief History of Time was published by Bantam—primarily a trade publisher with little experience with scientific texts—Hawking was involved in lengthy discussions about how to properly market his book. Hawking had originally intended to entitle his book From the Big Bang to Black Holes: A Short History of Time. The title A Brief History of Time was his editor's proposal, and Hawking wasn't initially thrilled about the inclusion of the word brief. Although Hawking wanted to appeal to a general audience, he believed the proposed title was a bit too lighthearted. Hawking changed his mind when he noticed the inclusion of the word brief brought a smile to his editor's face. His editor, Peter Guzzardi, remarked, "Stephen saw the point immediately, he likes to make people smile."

8. After being diagnosed with ALS, Hawking was not expected to live beyond age 25.

One of Hawking's most remarkable accomplishments has been continuing his career while living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a condition that deteriorates the body and eventually makes movement and speech impossible. Hawking was diagnosed with ALS when he was 21, and doctors did not expect him to live past 25. In turn, Hawking was able to craft his career, spending more than 30 years as a professor at Cambridge University and later directing the school's Center for Theoretical Cosmology, all while afflicted with ALS. Hawking has spoken at length about coping with the condition, as well as the depression he experienced as a result. In a lecture on his 74th birthday, Hawking stated:

The message of this lecture is that black holes ain't as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don't give up—there's a way out.

9. Hawking once ran over Prince Charles's toes with his wheelchair.

After years of being confined to an electric wheelchair, Hawking started to have some fun with his situation by allegedly running over the toes of people he didn't like. One of these poor souls was Prince Charles, whose toes were run over while Hawking was demonstrating his chair's capabilities. Referring to conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Hawking's biographer wrote:

One of Hawking's regrets in life was not having an opportunity to run over Margaret Thatcher's toes.

10. Hawking has made some chilling predictions about the future of humankind.

Hawking has expressed concern about the future of humanity amid climate change, globalization, and unprecedented technological advances. In 2017 Hawking released a statement urging humankind to investigate the possibility of colonizing other planets, citing climate change could very well lead to the species' extinction within the next century. He noted:

With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.

Hawking has also expressed great concern over the development of artificial intelligence, warning AI could easily overtake and even destroy humanity. He grimly stated:

It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate ... Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded.

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