When Stephen Hawking died on Wednesday at age 76, the scientific world lost one of its brightest and fiercest stars. It also lost one of its most effective ambassadors, a pop culture icon whose accessible science writing, including many incredible quotes from A Brief History of Time, has inspired entire generations of readers to keep learning, keep exploring, and keep asking questions about the universe around them.
When he set out to write A Brief History of Time, Hawkings wanted to create an accessible book about the origin, structure, and future of the universe that every day readers could pick up and understand. His writing may have been about complex phenomena like the Big Bang and black holes, but according to his longtime book editor Peter Guzzardi, Hawkings was "the rare academic who wanted just that — to bring his esoteric scholarly work to the attention of the masses." With his popular science books, that is exactly what he did.
Despite being dubbed "the most popular book never read," A Brief History of Time is in fact one of bestselling popular science titles in the world. Originally published in 1988, it has has sold over 10 million copies worldwide over the last 30 years, and has been translated into more than 35 languages. As his former colleague once famously put it, Hawking has "sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex."
Hawkings took it upon himself to explain the popularity of his book in the introduction of its illustrated edition, saying "The success of A Brief History indicates that there is widespread interest in the big questions like: Where did we come from? And why is the universe the way it is?" Thanks to the famed physicist's many contributions, including his accessible popular science books, every day readers have an opportunity to try and answer those very things.
"Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"
"There should be no boundary to human endeavor."
"Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity's deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in."
"However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”
"Equations are more important to me, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity."
"I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer."
"An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job."
"Nevertheless, it seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty."
"We see the universe the way it is because if it were different we would not be here to observe it."
"The universe doesn't allow perfection."
"Science seems to have uncovered a set of laws that, within the limits set by the uncertainty principle, tell us how the universe will develop with time, if we know its state at any one time. These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it."