Column

BRIEFER MADNESS

The universe is grand and incomprehensible. So is Stephen Hawking.

SCOTT FESCHUK November 14 2005
Column

BRIEFER MADNESS

The universe is grand and incomprehensible. So is Stephen Hawking.

SCOTT FESCHUK November 14 2005

BRIEFER MADNESS

Column

The universe is grand and incomprehensible. So is Stephen Hawking.

SCOTT FESCHUK

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, by the theoretical physicist and egghead celebrity Stephen Hawking, was released in 1988 and ranks among the bestselling books of the 20th century. Newly published this fall is A Briefer History of Time, the premise of which is that Hawking completely hosed us with that first book. Turns out it wasn’t brief, after all. It wasn’t easy to understand. Hell, it may not even have been about time—none of us made it past page 4.

Calling/! Brief History of Time “impenetrable” is

like calling Hitler “motivated.” Hawking’s professorial ramblings invoked in readers the urge to pick up and relocate to a less confusing universe. Indeed, the sum total of the knowledge we collectively retained from the book can be described as follows:

a) the universe is pretty big;

b) it’s getting bigger;

c) despite what TV tells you, most solar systems probably don’t boast a svelte alien space babe who makes hot interstellar love to visiting starship captains.

As its title suggests, A Briefer History of Time is shorter than its predecessor. The book’s cover describes it as “more concise” and “more accessible.” In its pages, there are more illustrations and far fewer equations. Long story short: the only way Hawking could have dumbed it down any further would have been to enlist Paris Hilton as a co-author, which would have cost him a certain amount of academic cred—but then again, it would have made the chapter on the Big Bang far more enrapturing. As it is, we can all eagerly anticipate the next edition of Hawking’s book, The Briefest History of Time, which will consist in its entirety of the observation: “It sure flies when you’re having fun.”

In A Briefer History of Time, Hawking and his co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, delve (briefly) into the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. They strive (briefly) to give a lucid explanation of string theory. Page

after page, they do an excellent job of simply but forcefully conveying (not so briefly) the indisputable scientific fact that they have huge, giant brains. That said, the authors cannot offer a convincing explanation as to why, given that our uftiverse contains more than 100 billion galaxies and each of these galaxies contains about 100 billion stars, we were all unfortunate enough to wind up orbiting the same one as Jessica Simpson.

WE CAN all anticipate the next edition of his book,

The Briefest History of Time, which will consist in its entirety of the observation: ‘It sure flies when you’re having fun’

Thanks largely to Hawking, attempting to explain the universe to average folk, and doing so using language that will reduce the risk of the side-effect known colloquially as Exploding Head Syndrome, has over the past 15 years become a burgeoning profit industry for brainiacs. Big Bang, a bestseller from 2004 by Simon Singh, features handwritten summary notes after each chapter, complete with amusing doodles. In The Fabric of the Cosmos, also published in 2004, physicist Brian Greene answers questions such as, “Could the universe exist without space and time?” with explanations that employ characters from TheX-Files, The Simpsons and other pop-culture mainstays. It’s a useful device, but frankly it’s hard not to feel you’re being talked down to when an author’s description of the special theory of relativity includes the phrase, “Itchy, Scratchy and Apu on the train do not feel any motion.” One can’t help thinking that if Einstein were writing today, his publisher would ask him to explain the cosmological constant using the analogy of thong shopping with Cameron Diaz.

But simple sells. In mainstream publishing these days, you can’t spell “physics” without “fun!” Seriously. You’ll have to trust me on this one. I know you can’t actually sec the letters “f-u-n” in the word “physics” but they’re in there, honest. It’s like the universe itself—you have to take it on faith and just accept that it all exists, despite no visible evidence whatsoever. In that way, the universe is like neutrinos, cold fronts and Orlando Bloom’s charisma.

Rest assured that if A Briefer History of Time performs well, a new publishing trend is inevitable—the adding of an “er” to an existing bestseller. Keep an eye out for the release of The Redder Badge of Courage, about an even braver guy, and The Older Man and the Sea, in which Santiago’s aged father bellyaches for 200 pages about the rising price of worms. U]

Scott Feschuk can be reached at sfeschuk@sympatico.ca