"The Universe in a Nutshell" is billed by its author Stephen Hawking as the sequel to the legendary A Brief History of Time. It covers the work of Hawking and his compatriot Roger Penrose since the publication of that book, including black holes, super-symmetry, cosmic strings, P-branes, M-theory, and finally the Theory of Everything.

The book is, like its predecessor, an attempt to remove the mathematical dressing from theoretical physics and thus make the latter accessible to anyone with a basic understand of physics. To this end, the book is shot through with typical Hawking wit and dry humour, but there is also an obvious distinction from A Brief History of Time in the proliferation of many truly stunning CG illustrations: these are, for the most part, more than just eye candy, for they reflect the text of the book, but offer a more visual interpretation of it.

Hawking is so successful in his explanations because he couples the powerful medium of illustration with a huge variety of analogies, and the material is inherently readable since it all seems so fantastical to anyone, like myself, unfamiliar with theoretical physics. But Hawking never allows himself to be consumed with conjecture, insteading focussing on what has been achieved so far, and what is almost within our grasp. However, he is also unafraid to highlight the gaps in our knowledge, even those that are currently unapproachable.

Hawking has also responded to another criticism levelled at A Brief History of Time, that it was too linear in structure and that failure to comprehend earlier chapters made the remainder of the book impenetrable. This book is organised into seven chapters; in the introduction, Hawking recommends that the first two are read in order, and from thereon in any order the reader choses. The chapters are heavily cross-referenced, so this would certainly be a possibility, but nonetheless I chose to read it in order.

The only weakness in the book is that, in comparison to its prequel, it is rather short; with all the new diagrams and side notes, it weighs in at just 201 A4 pages. On the other hand, I think Hawking explains a lot of things in a very concise fashion, for there's a lot of information in those pages, and it is certainly worth repeat readings. A fascinating work indeed, and certainly accessible to those less well-versed in the ways of modern physics.

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