A Brief History of My Copy of A Brief History of Time

Last month I ended up reading a lot of relationship-oriented books: the Nora Roberts, of course, but also Opting Out? and The Five Love Languages. Love is good and all, but I needed a break. A shift. A different perspective.

I needed Stephen Hawking.

I have had a copy of A Brief History of Time patiently waiting on my bookshelf lo these many long years. I picked it up sometime after its bestselling stint in the late ’80s, when it was touted to the masses as a bang-up effort to help “nonscientists understand the questions being asked by scientists today”—questions about the origin and nature of the universe.

I never seriously considered that I would be too dumb for this book. I’m smart. I never took a math class I didn’t ace. I haven’t done physics since high school, but I managed to scrape out an A there too. I’m not one of those creative people who can’t do logic. I have lengthy delusional fantasies about my aptitude for engineering and astronomy.

Looking back now, it’s easy to see I was doomed.

The first couple chapters went all right. Hawking covers things like gravity, Newtonian physics, and general relativity, stuff I remembered well enough from high school to ring a bell. The uncertainty principle was new, but I basically followed along. Then came some horrifying stuff about particles, colored quarks, “spin,” and event horizons, and I started to wish I were dead.

But I knew the end had come when I got to page 121, where Hawking neatly summarizes the “important questions” remaining at that point in the book, questions like this one:

Why did the universe start out with so nearly the critical rate of expansion that separates models that recollapse from those that go on expanding forever, so that even now, ten thousand million years later, it is still expanding at nearly the critical rate? If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size. (121-22)

He doesn’t say so outright, but the implication is that a smart and engaged reader would be bursting at the seams with those same questions. My questions, it turned out, were more like “Why is this so hard?” and “When is this book going to be over?”

That was several weeks ago. Thereafter the book sat forlornly on the arm of my couch, and I pretended it wasn’t there.

My basic problem with Brief History, I realized, was that I actually don’t care why what Hawking says is true. He really doesn’t need to prove it to me. He could have written five pages of conclusion and it would have been more than sufficient. (Little did I know, Hawking actually did publish A Briefer (!) History of Time in 2005.) I just wanted to know what those physicists were up to. And now that I know, I’m sorrier than ever that I’m too dumb to be one, because it’s pretty much the best job ever: What you do makes so little sense to almost anyone that no one will ever know if you’re not really working. And it’s so geeked-out—the later chapters in Hawking’s book bear a remarkable resemblance to a conversation I once overheard about the theoretical powers of that Balrog-thing in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Still, still, I hadn’t fully admitted to myself that the jig was up. I kept thinking I’d get back to the book…sure I would!…just as soon as I managed to get more time. Just as soon as I could really focus on it.

Then my dog ate it.

She’s never eaten a book before. She’s never even sniffed a book before. Yet this time: tatters. And though I should have been mad—a book-eating dog is not the pet for two writers—all I could do was laugh. Because I realized that ripping that book to shreds is exactly what I’d wanted to do all along.

It’s only fair to note that the Amazon reviews rave about Brief History; everyone says it’s so easy and clear and fascinating and how you’d have to be a complete tool not to understand it (gushes one reviewer, “as a recent high school graduate, I can say with some level of certainty that the average person can understand 90% of this book”). I blame myself, not Hawking. So if you’ve got the interest and the moxie, don’t let my sad story dissuade you.

But I think I’ve learned my lesson—Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is the closest I should come to reading about astrophysics. As my friend Alice used to write at the end of all of her chemistry lab reports:

Today I learned a little about science…and a lot about myself.

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