Friday, February 18, 2005


In 'The Universe in a Nutshell' Stephen Hawking brings his characteristic wit and clarity to explaining the most esoteric and exotic concepts of modern physics to the reader. While I personally think that the poor man has been too glorified by hagiographical readers, there is no doubt that he is one of the most brilliant physicists of our time, and has an unlikely existence; struck by motor neuron disease in his twenties, doctors gave him two years to live. Battling all odds (and a difficult marriage) he stuck it out, becoming totally paralysed in the process, but contributing fundamentally to our understanding of the universe.
In 'Music to move the stars', his now divorced wife brought out an endearing portrait of the man. Hawking's own book 'A brief history of time', was one of the best-selling science books ever. Personally, I think the book's success owed more to the condition that it's author was in, and to the subject itself-astrophysics has always drawn many enthusiasts-than the actual content, which nonetheless was very interesting.
In 'The Universe in a Nutshell', Hawking builds upon his previous exposition and leads the reader through a whirlwind tour of such things as black holes, Schrodinger's cat, 'm' and 'p' 'branes', worm holes and time travel, and discusses those eternal questions of what is time, whether god exists, and whether the universe has a beginning or an end. Again, I really think that the true appeal of these topics lies in their fantastic science fictional and also religious implications, than their actual scientific content; most readers, including me, could never ever hope to understand the complex math behind these things.
This book is perhaps the best illustrated popular science book I have ever come across. Hawking has put in much thought about the lavish character illustrations, cartoons, and pictures that virtually inundate the book (including one with Hawking having Marilyn Monroe on his lap...fictional, of course!). Once or twice, an equation stares at the reader, but not anything that requires an understanding of more than secondary school math.
All in all, a very entertaining journey through a fantastic world-except that in this case, a lot of it is supported by hard science.

One of my favourite quotes from the book, which Hawking delivers with simple clarity (in rough paraphrase):
"Astrologers make predictions about the future of human beings based on the motion of the planets. This would be a scientific proposition and can be verified, but only if they stuck out their necks and made definite predictions. However, astrologers cleverly escape the test of scientific veracity by making predictions that are so vague that either they can never be verified, or in general, they will always be true. For example, 'You will experience beneficient happenings in the next few days' or 'Travel highlights your future'!"
However, Hawking also says that the real reason why scientists don't believe in astrology is because by any stretch of imagination, they cannot envisage the laws of physics acting in such a way that would cause the motion of the planets to actually influence the life of these tiny, insignificant (from the point of view of the universe!) specks on a small planet called earth!


Anonymous Hirak said...

I have tried and tried to explain to these 'Astrology types' the absolute idiocy and lunacy of their beliefs, but then I am waging a lost cause. Sigh!

I have some of his lectures on mp3 in case you are interested.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

I must confess that I am one of the 'Astrology Types' :-P
I don't make or believe in general predictions, but I'm a fan of Linda Goodman's.

P.S. Don't ask me for facts and figures :-)

7:57 AM  

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