Inspired by the recent movie, The Theory of Everything, I picked up a nonfiction classic I had never read, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I have had this book around the house for five years and I had never cracked it open and, before doing so, I reminded myself that I may understand no more than 5-10 pages of it.
I’m happy to report I may have understood 11. For an English Major, I fared pretty well.
Someone had told Hawking that for every equation he puts in the book the book sales are going to drop by half. Hawking said he vowed to put only one in the book, Einstein’s famous equation. Hawking’s decision helped me understand 11 pages. Had he felt differently, I may not have understood such a high number of pages.
Most of A Brief History of Time was very difficult to follow even without equations thrown in here and there. The pages I really enjoyed were well written explanations of science factoids I had once heard, but had since forgotten, or they were completely new to me. For example, someone somewhere in my past had told me about the possibility of travel at the speed of light, that is, how it’s not really possible. Hawking very thoughtfully explained it this way:
As an object approaches the speed of light, its mass rises ever more quickly, so it takes more and more energy to speed it up further. It can in fact never reach the speed of light, because by then its mass would have become infinite, and by the equivalence of mass and energy, it would have taken an infinite amount of energy to get it there.
Yeah, I had completely forgotten about that. I guess I do not think about traveling at the speed of light enough because if I had I am sure I would have kept the “equivalence of mass and energy” fresh in my mind.
Abundant were the facts in this book that were completely new to me. One that I read over and over again was about the density of White Dwarfs:
…with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tons per cubic inch.
That’s dense. But wait, there is more. Neutron stars have “a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tons per cubic inch.”
Holy. That is crazy. I kept picturing one of those very popular whiskey rocks and imagining it weighing a hundred million tons. Trying to wrap my head around that made for a sleepy afternoon.
This book made for a lot of sleepy afternoons. Ultimately, I enjoyed it. There were two rewards for finishing A Brief History of Time. One, the typical joy one gets from finishing any book. Two, the deep satisfaction of knowing I will never have the desire or need to pick this book up again. It may as well weigh a million tons now that I have set it down.