(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Stephen Hawking’s popularization of modern cosmology, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, made publishing history (and the Guinness Book of Records) when it remained on the London Times’ best-seller list for more than four years, much longer than any previous book. It was also extraordinarily successful in the United States and other countries and was translated into more than sixty languages. For a work dealing with abstruse astrophysical concepts to sell more than nine million copies was surprising, even to its author. Variously characterized as a landmark in scientific writing and the most popular scientific text of all time, it was also chosen as one of the one hundred most important books of the twentieth century, and a Cambridge University poll ranked it as the book “most likely” to have the same influence as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859).

Because of the phenomenal success of A Brief History of Time, Hawking published a series of corrected, updated, and expanded editions, including a tenth-anniversary edition and an illustrated edition with more than 240 photographs, diagrams, and computer-generated images. An abridged and simplified version was published in 2005. American film director Steven Spielberg, who had met Hawking, produced Errol Morris’s successful documentary A Brief History of Time, released in 1991, which documented Hawking’s life and accomplishments. The film’s success led to the publication of a reader’s companion to the film and book. The success of the companion in turn led to a six-part television miniseries, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, first televised in 1997. In 2008, The Illustrated A Brief History of Time was combined with the illustrated version of Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), demonstrating the book’s continuing popularity.

Critics, scholars, and even Hawking’s mother developed various explanations for the book’s exceptional success. Hawking’s publisher, who had warned him that every mathematical equation included in the text would halve the book’s sales, felt that the absence of mathematics—with the exception of Albert Einstein’s famous expression of the relationship between matter and energy—played a role in the book’s popularity. Some commentators attributed the book’s prodigious sales to the author’s genuine talent for using similes, analogies, and humor to make complex mathematical and physical ideas understandable to lay readers. Others thought that, like Einstein, Hawking was able to communicate to ordinary readers his childlike wonder over the mysteries of the universe and the joy of discovering the solutions to some of these mysteries.

More controversially, a few critics admonished the book’s publisher for exploiting Hawking’s disabilities for commercial purposes. For most of his life, Hawking has suffered an increasingly debilitating case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which requires him to use a wheelchair (as depicted on the front of the book’s dust jacket). His mother responded that her son’s ability to overcome his handicaps and become a very successful scientist and science popularizer served as an example of inspiration, not exploitation. Hawking himself has stated that he wrote the book, which took him over five years, to help provide for his family, especially for the education of his children.

In A Brief History of Time, Hawking tries to answer certain basic questions that nonscientists have about the universe. For example, how did it originate, how will it end, how is it structured, and is it finite or infinite? To communicate how modern scientists answer these questions, Hawking uses two fundamental theories: general relativity and quantum mechanics. General relativity is Einstein’s theory, involving innovative ideas of space, time, matter, and gravity that enabled him and others to deepen their understanding of the large-scale structure of the universe. Quantum mechanics, developed by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and others, enabled scientists to understand puzzling phenomena at the subatomic level. Like all theories, relativity and quantum mechanics are provisional. They are not even consistent with each other. Nevertheless, they superseded the model of matter and the universe that had been formulated by Sir Isaac Newton, whose mathematical description of gravity as a mutual...

(The entire section is 1870 words.)