A Brief History of Revision: Remembering Stephen Hawking

Yesterday morning, many of us awoke to the sad news that the great theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author Stephen Hawking had passed away.

Stephen Hawking’s bestselling book on cosmology, A Brief History of Time.

Hawking was a well-known figure not only for his extraordinary intelligence and contributions to our knowledge about black holes, quantum mechanics, and relativity, but also for his success at explaining complex theoretical principles in a language that the general public could understand. Boiling down dense theoretical physics into something readable for a lay audience is not an easy task, however. Hawking admits that his first book, the bestseller A Brief History of Time (1988), went through many painful drafts. He told the Wall Street Journal, “Each time I sent [my editor Peter Guzzardi] 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.”

Washington University Libraries has a photocopy of an early draft of Hawking’s famous book, which he sent to Washington University Associate Professor Stephen Zatman in 1986. Below you can see the letter that he sent to Zatman, along with the table of contents, titled A Short History of Time. Hawking has credited Guzzardi with suggesting the title change from “Short” to “Brief,” saying “It was a stroke of genius and must have contributed to the success of the book” (Hawking). If you have a copy of the published book, you will also notice that many of the chapter titles have changed between this manuscript and the finished product.

Letter from Stephen Hawking to Stephen Zatman, dated March 24, 1986. From the Washington University Libraries Vertical Manuscript Files.

Table of Contents to an early draft of A Brief History of Time. From the Washington University Libraries Vertical Manuscript Files.

The first page of Hawking’s manuscript (below) begins, “From the start of civilization, man has asked…” a sentence that would make a Writing 101 teacher cringe while grading a student essay, but which might be forgiven in a book that is actually about the history of the universe. This introduction is replaced in the published text with the famous “turtles all the way down” anecdote.

The opening page of a 1986 draft of A Brief History of Time. From the Washington University Libraries Vertical Manuscript Files.

Throughout the manuscript, there are fairly extensive markings from an unknown commentator, possibly Guzzardi. This commentator has placed a letter grade on each chapter. You can see on the page below that he has graded the third chapter as a B+.

Handwritten comments on the third chapter of a 1986 version of A Brief History of Time. From the Washington University Libraries Vertical Manuscript Files.

 

Stephen Hawking was devoted to the idea of making science accessible to the general public, and A Brief History of Time accomplished just that. In his 2013 article for the Wall Street Journal about the process of publishing, Hawking states, “I wanted it to have as many readers as possible…I wanted it to be the sort of book that would sell in airport bookstores. [My agent] told me there was no chance of that.”

The book ended up being on the New York Times best-seller list for close to three years and on the London Times best-seller list for a record-breaking four-and-a-half years, encouraging other scientists to try their hand at writing about complex subjects for lay audiences and securing his legacy as one of the greatest scientists and science writers in recent history. He will be greatly missed by both the scientific and literary community.

 

Sources:

Hawking, Stephen. “Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of a Best Seller; Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking Describes the Rocky Origins of his Popular Science Book” The Wall Street Journal, 6 Sep. 2013.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.