Thursday, January 12, 2006


I have this long commute, and often use the time to listen to audio books. Many come from the library. One of the recent audio books in a series, Xenocide, was only available on tape. So, I developed a way to play the tapes into my computer's sound card, and convert to mp3. However, the tapes were of very poor quality, and I ended up checking out the dead trees version.

Just to make sure that it was the tapes, not my system, I ripped my historic copy of Stephen W. Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Nothing wrong with my old tapes.

It is only 5 1/2 hours, so i listened to it twice. It is a long commute.

The reader, Michael Jackson, who does not sing for a living, is a capable reader, but not a scientist. There are a few names, like Chandrasekhar, which would give anyone pause. And, he chuckles at the absurdities, like the quark names: up, down, strange and charm, or the Einstein quote, God does not play dice.

The book is, in my opinion, not so much about time, but about gravity. Even then, it isn't so much about what gravity is, but about what it isn't. And, it isn't currently viewable with the other forces in a consistent way. Oh, and gravity primarily governs the past and future history of the Universe, which is all of space-time, hence the time references.

It isn't a new book, but seems to have avoided obsolescence reasonably well, at least for what he says. The age of the Universe was known only to within a factor of two. He says ten to twenty thousand million years. That's 10 to 20 gigayears, or for an American, 10 to 20 billion years. His handling of big (and small) numbers is annoying. He'll say 5 million, million, million, million, million years or a five with thirty zeroes after it. I wish he'd have just explained scientific notation up front.

Additionally, he mixes metric and English measurement units for length. I'd have preferred he just used metric, possibly by introducing conversions. That, and I'm an American.

Further, there are now reasonably well accepted models of the Universe earlier than when it was one second old. Plenty of stuff goes on in that first second that matters later on. Still, this isn't An Exhaustive History of Time, so it is quite OK if a few details are skimmed.

Something I'd forgotten is that it has a preface written by Carl Sagan. Sagan doesn't say billions even once. And, he says things that I had attributed to Hawking. I've never read the dead trees version, and feel that I'd never have not noticed that the preface was by someone else in that format. Sagan always had interesting things to say, and an eloquent way of saying them. I haven't read all of Sagan's books, but I've always been pleasantly impressed when I see another of his works.

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