Here is an abbreviated list of Things I Will Very Likely Never Understand:
2) Quantum mechanics
3) String theory
5) Those personal ads where men take pictures of intimate parts of their bodies and expect to be mobbed by enthusiastic responses.
I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time almost ten years ago. I struggled with it, I admit, since I have very little science background and less math, but it was very interesting and quite accessible. I took pages of notes and I asked a lot of questions of colleagues and science-minded friends, and I proudly completed it with what I considered a decent understanding of the contents.
The sequel (so to speak), The Universe in a Nutshell, deals with some of the theoretical advances that have been made since A Brief History of Time (which was originally published in 1988.) The book begins with two chapters that bring the reader back up to scratch with Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity. Honestly, except for the twins paradox, I understand Einstein’s ideas fairly readily. (If any friendly reader would like to explain to a non-scientist why time goes slower — dilates — when you are going closer to the speed of light, I would reward you suitably!) But after Einstein, it becomes… difficult.
Starting in chapter three, Hawking is really launched on the controversial theoretical ideas with which scientists are currently wrestling. The ideas of quantum mechanics introduced at first apparently insoluble problems to theoretical physics that can only be resolved by the use of science-fiction phrases like “imaginary spacetime,” “p-branes,” “shadow worlds,” and “wrinkles in time.” It would appear that no science-fiction phenomenon is off-limits to the theoretical mind (even if, like time travel, it is improbable to a degree of ten to the trillion trillion trillionth power.) As a non-scientist, sweating bullets to understand how supersymmetric string theory needs to work with Grassman numbers, it was distinctly peculiar to read about “imaginary” things as an apparently “real” phenomenon. Vocabulary is weird.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. The book is highly accessible, even if I may never really understand what cosmic strings are supposed to be. It’s only 200 pages long, and full of excellent four-color illustrations. Hawking’s style is simple and clear. It often appeared to me that he must feel as if he were writing a primer (A is for antimatter, B is for brane, C is for cosmic strings), simplifying almost to the point of meaninglessness, while I sat thinking, “How could anyone ever have worked this out?”
If you have any curiosity at all about the way the universe works, or might work, or if you’d like to know more about how physicists’ and astronomers’ theories are evolving, I can do no better than to recommend this book. Despite my difficulties, I found it fascinating, helpful, and even funny at times. If you have any science background at all, I dare say you’ll get on with it better than I did, too. Though I dare you to explain those personal ads.