Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of a Best Seller; A literary agent told him a book about the universe could never become popular

September 6, 2013, 8:35 p.m. ET

Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of a Best Seller

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking describes the rocky origins of his popular science book

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Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, around 1988. A literary agent told him a book about the universe could never become popular.

STEPHEN HAWKING

I first had the idea of writing a popular book about the universe in 1982. My intention was partly to earn money to pay my daughter’s school fees. But the main reason was that I wanted to explain how far we had come in our understanding of the universe: how we might be near finding a complete theory that would describe the universe and everything in it. If I was going to spend the time and effort to write a book, I wanted it to have as many readers as possible. I contacted a literary agent and gave him a draft of the first chapter, explaining that I wanted it to be the sort of book that would sell in airport bookstores. He told me there was no chance of that. It might sell well to academics and students, but a book like that couldn’t break into best-seller territory. I gave the agent a first draft of the book in 1984. He sent it to several publishers, and I decided to take an offer from Bantam Books. Bantam’s interest was probably due to one of their editors, Peter Guzzardi, who took his job very seriously and made me rewrite the book so that it would be understandable to nonscientists. Each time I sent him a rewritten chapter, he sent back a long list of objections and questions. At times I thought the process would never end. But he was right: It is a much better book as a result.I was sure that nearly everyone is interested in how the universe operates, but most people cannot follow mathematical equations. I don’t care much for equations myself. This is partly because it is difficult for me to write them down, but mainly because I don’t have an intuitive feeling for equations. Instead, I think in pictorial terms, and my aim in the book was to describe these mental images in words, with the help of familiar analogies and a few diagrams.

Still, even if I avoided using mathematics, some of the ideas would be difficult to explain. This posed a problem: Should I try to explain them and risk people being confused, or should I gloss over the difficulties? Some unfamiliar concepts were not essential to the picture I wanted to draw, but others were.

One was the so-called “sum over histories.” This is the idea that there is not just a single history for the universe. Rather, there is a collection of every possible history for the universe, and all these histories are equally real (whatever that may mean). The other idea, which is necessary to make mathematical sense of the first one, is that of imaginary time.

With hindsight, I now feel that I should have put more effort into explaining these two very difficult concepts, particularly imaginary time, which seems to be the thing in the book with which people have the most trouble. But it is not really necessary to understand exactly what imaginary time is—just that it is different from what we call real time.

When the book was nearing publication in 1988, a scientist who was sent an advance copy to review for the journal Nature was appalled to find it full of errors, with misplaced and erroneously labeled photographs and diagrams. He called the publisher, which was equally appalled and decided that same day to recall and scrap the entire printing. (Copies of the original first edition are now probably quite valuable.) Still, it was ready in time to be in bookstores by the April Fools’ Day publication date. By then, Time magazine had published a cover profile of me.

The publisher was taken by surprise by the demand for the book. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for 147 weeks and on the London Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks, has been translated into 40 languages, and has sold over 10 million copies world-wide.

My original title was “From the Big Bang to Black Holes: A Short History of Time,” but my editor Peter Guzzardi turned it around and changed Short to Brief. It was a stroke of genius and must have contributed to the success of the book. There have been many “brief histories” of this and that since, and even “A Brief History of Thyme.”

Why did so many people buy the book? It is difficult for me to be objective, so I will go by what other people said. I found most of the reviews, although favorable, rather unilluminating. They tended to follow a single formula:

Stephen Hawking has Lou Gehrig’s disease (the term used in American reviews) or motor neuron disease (in British reviews). He is confined to a wheelchair, cannot speak, and can only move X number of fingers (where X seems to vary from one to three, according to which inaccurate article the reviewer read about me). Yet he has written this book about the biggest question of all: Where did we come from and where are we going?

The answer Mr. Hawking proposes is that the universe is neither created nor destroyed: It just is. In order to formulate this idea, Mr. Hawking introduces the concept of imaginary time, which I (that is, the reviewer) find a little hard to follow. Still, if Mr. Hawking is right and we do find a complete unified theory, we shall really “know the mind of God.” (In the proof stage, I nearly cut that last sentence of the book. Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.)

Rather more perceptive was an article in the Independent, a London newspaper, which said that even a serious scientific work such as “A Brief History of Time” could become a cult book. I was rather flattered to have my book compared with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I hope that, like “Zen,” it gives people the feeling that they need not be cut off from the great intellectual and philosophical questions.

Undoubtedly, the human interest story of how I have managed to be a theoretical physicist despite my disability has helped sales of the book. But those who bought it because of this angle may have been disappointed, because it contains only a couple of references to my condition. The book was intended as a history of the universe, not of me.

It also has been suggested that many people bought the book to display on their bookcase or coffee table, without having actually read it. I am sure this happens, but I do know that at least some people have waded into “A Brief History of Time.” Even now, I get a pile of letters every day, many asking questions or making detailed comments that indicate that the writers have read the book, even if they do not understand all of it.

—Mr. Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years. His memoir, “My Brief History,” from which this essay is adapted, will be published Tuesday.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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