“This is all mind-boggling stuff”: The Reception of A Brief History of Time

On January 8th 2017, Professor Stephen Hawking celebrates his 75th birthday. Few scientists have such a strong place in the popular imagination, being the subject of numerous media from Hollywood films to documentaries to books, among many others. For 30 years he held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University, a chair held by no less than Sir Isaac Newton, filling some rather large shoes.

Behan, Rosemary. “Stephen Hawking to appear in The Simpsons.” Daily Telegraph, 7 Dec. 1998, p. [1]. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4Bvkd8.
Gale Document Number: GALE|IO0700966038
cosmos according to Hawking
Coates, Mari. “Film.” San Francisco Sentinel: California’s Gay and Lesbian Newsweekly, 27 Aug. 1992, p. 27. Archives of Sexuality & Gender, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4Bvkt1. Gale Document Number: GALE|QLNBPH092271528

This is made all the more remarkable for a man that, in 1963, in his early twenties, was given two years to live after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The contrast between the physical limitation imposed by the disease and the seemingly unlimited complexity of thought he produces, and the obstacles he has had to overcome to make one independent from the other, make his life, career and work all the more special.

Over the coming weeks, many things will be written about Professor Hawking, and much familiar biographical ground will be revisited, so at this point I’m going to change direction. For this post, I’d like to look at something a bit different, and consider the work that brought him into the public eye.

First published in 1988, it is hard to argue that anyone could have predicted the impact A Brief History of Time would have outside the academic world. Today, we take for granted the respect, recognition and influence it has achieved, but it turns out the journey to reaching this status took a bit longer than you might have thought.

Early Response

For a book that is hailed as a landmark in science writing, and credited for a large part in bringing science to a wider audience, you would expect the initial response to be have been overwhelmingly positive.

If only it had been that simple. On publication, some were not positive about the book. One of the first reviewers in The Economist (June 1988) was certainly not impressed: “Mr Hawking’s book is his not-altogether-satisfactory explanation, to the layman, of the ideas that have earned him so much respect among his colleagues…This is all mind-boggling stuff. But Mr Hawking’s presentation is disappointing”[1]

By 1991 though, the impact of Professor Hawking’s work was starting to be acknowledged, after having spent nearly 100 weeks on bestseller lists in the two years after publication. Publishers Weekly was already including it among the big-hitting science books of the 1980s that were changing public perceptions of academics and bringing their work into the popular consciousness[2].

By June 1997, The New Statesman was commenting (humorously) how, since the success of the book, achieving a long stay on a bestseller list was an equal ambition to winning a Nobel Prize for scientists[3]. At the beginning of the millennium, Business Wire reported on the results of a competition run by Barnes & Noble that asked consumers to pick their favourite book from a list of Top 10 classics[4]: I think you can guess which book won.

the cosmos and me
Hawking, Stephen. “The cosmos and me.” Sunday Telegraph, 26 July 1998, p. [1]+. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4BvrN4.
Gale Document Number: GALE|IO0700794457
A Place in Popular Culture

By the end of the first decade of the millennium, a backhanded compliment shows how deeply embedded the book had become in popular culture. In a transcript from CBS News Sunday Morning in March 2009, the discussion turned to a World Book Day survey that unearthed an interesting result: A Brief History of Time came sixth on a list of books people had lied about having read, with 15% of respondents making the admission[5].

A dubious honour indeed, but very few books reach a level of recognition in society that convincing other people you have read it becomes a part of the identity a person wants to present to the world. To put that result in perspective, the Bible came in one place above it at number four in the survey, with a top five that also included James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and George Orwell’s 1984.

A Wide Range of Influence

To this day, it is still proving influential. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review in 2014, Malala Yousafzai commented on how the book allowed her to “distract [herself] from the fear and terrorism by thinking about things like how the universe began and whether time travel is possible”[6].

It is not just the influence on individuals that is notable. The results of a Folio Society survey published in the International Business Times (2014) named it the third most influential book to humanity, being beaten only by the Bible and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species[7]. Once again, it appears in a list among very prestigious company, and is likely to keep this status for a long time to come.

A Fitting Legacy

From inspiring escapism in war-torn countries to a social identifier of taste and intellect, from strongholds on bestseller lists to a stand-out example of the growing strength of popular science publishing, very few books (and especially science books in the modern era) can claim to have had the longevity and influence across so many areas that A Brief History of Time has achieved, both in academia and in popular culture.

Its place in the world is a perfect companion to the life and career of one of the great articulators, thinkers and advocates of science in the past century, and will be for a long time to come. The early review in The Economist showed that it was not obvious this would happen: I wonder what that reviewer would be thinking now?

[1] “A Brief History of Time.” The Economist, 25 June 1988, p. 91+. Book Review Index Plus, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA6477480&it=r&asid=108bd47e286e18f0d0396bc2f7d3c6ee.

[2] Nixon, Will. “The art of publishing popular science books; why – and how – the field is flourishing.” Publishers Weekly, 23 Aug. 1991, p. 32+. Business Collection, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA11185602&it=r&asid=d4660a9fc2e1557afa96a8b191112b61.

[3] Maddox, John. “The Life of the Cosmos.” New Statesman, 6 June 1997, p. 44+. Book Review Index Plus, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA19925899&it=r&asid=460baa86185abd0a494138db019ae275.

[4] “Barnes & Noble.com Issues New Classics List; Stephen Hawking, U2 and The Matrix are the People’s Choice; Winner of Sweepstakes to Receive 2001 Volkswagen Beetle.” Business Wire, 18 Dec. 2000, p. 2121. Business Collection, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA68142706&it=r&asid=64303664c6b741398fabc04a164668a3.

[5] “For March 8, 2009, CBS.” CBS News Sunday Morning, 8 Mar. 2009. General OneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA195447864&it=r&asid=bd105a7c6d55b043cbb9d518651646b9.

[6] “Malala Yousafzai.” The New York Times Book Review, 24 Aug. 2014, p. 7(L). Infotrac Newsstand, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA379674281&it=r&asid=1e63eafb279a057260b583fa00d7f9e9.

[7] “Bible Is the World’s Most Valuable And Influential Book; See The Top Ten List.” International Business Times [U.S. ed.], 16 Nov. 2014. Business Collection, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA390303281&it=r&asid=e24aee3618b5fb5ed1b5b7267601851d.

About the Author

Kyle has moved up and down the UK working across academic and schools publishing, marketing everything from dense reference works to beautifully illustrated primary school textbooks, to almost every country in the world. He’s a fanboy of social sciences (even though his own academic background is in Literature, Art History and Philosophy), and can often be found in the wild doing vague imitations of exercise or listening to podcasts on a whole variety of things.