A brief history of Stephen Hawking’s blockbuster

nature16881-i2Elizabeth Leane writes in Nature about the extraordinary influence of the physicist’s first foray into popular-science publishing:

“As a publishing phenomenon, A Brief History of Time is not, as is sometimes claimed, unprecedented. There were nineteenth-century science blockbusters such as mathematician Mary Somerville’s 1834 On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. And in 1930, physicist James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe achieved a comparable reception to Hawking’s book; the jacket of the 1937 Pelican edition promotes it as “the famous book which upset tradition by making Science a bestseller”. Nor was Hawking writing in a vacuum. The 1970s and 1980s had seen a series of big-selling popular-physics books, from Fritjof Capra’s 1975 The Tao of Physics to Steven Weinberg’s 1977 The First Three Minutes, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980) and James Gleick’s Chaos (1987). The sales of A Brief History, however, put even these best-sellers in the shade.”

“Attempts to capitalize on the ‘Hawking phenomenon’ went hand in hand with speculations about the factors that led to it. Hawking was highly regarded in the physics community, and had been a minor celebrity to the general public even before his watershed book, appearing (for example) in Nigel Calder’s UK television series The Key to the Universe in the late 1970s. The disparity between the physical limitations of his disability and the cosmic scale of his ideas was part of his charisma. Few other popular-physics books of the period feature, as A Brief History does, a photograph of the author on the front.”

Read the full article in Nature

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