A Brief History of Time: Stephen Hawking’s 1988 classic theoretical physics book

A single “theory of everything” exists. We just haven’t found it yet.

That’s one of the main arguments from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), as articulated in his 1988 bestselling book A Brief History of Time. The book helped make him one of his generation’s best known intellectuals, and he used an array of impressive technologies to help him continue to shape public thought during his long battle with ALS. It helped popularize many obscure and complex ideas.

Though he didn’t win a Nobel Prize in his lifetime and he occupied a kind of celebrity status, he did contribute meaningfully to his field. In 1974, in his early 30s, Hawking argued that black holes would emit heat energy, so-called Hawking radiation, which would mean that, unless they otherwise added mass, a black hole could eventually vanish. He helped us discover that black holes might not even be, you know, black. That work gave him needed pedigree to write this book, which is a relatively breezy read while also citing much of the most exciting ideas in theoretical physics and even cosmology.

As a hobbyist consumer of pop science, I’ve long wanted to read this text. Much of what he wrote about has been covered by an array of science Youtubers and writers I follow. Yet I still got much from the book. Do read it. Below I share my notes from the book for myself.

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How to make a great checklist

No matter how expert you are, a simple, carefully-constructed list will improve the quality of your output.

That’s the central point that author Atul Gawande made back in 2009 in his popular business book The Checklist Manifesto, which followed an article he wrote for the New Yorker. It’s a short book that others have recommended to me before, so I finally grabbed a copy and breezed through it. His central point is clear enough that it likely could have remained a longform article, but the book is easy enough a read that’s worth the time. If you haven’t already give it a try.

Below find my notes from the book, including tips for making a better checklist yourself.

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Works Rules! Google research and data on running more effective companies from the 2015 book

Given its large scale, data-driven culture and willingness to experiment, Google has produced a considerable amount of intelligence on operating effective organizations.

Much of it was shared in the 2015 bestselling book Work Rules! by Google’s former chief people officer Laszlo Bock. It’s long been on my list, and earlier this year I finally finished it up.

I recommend you get yourself a copy of the book. Below for my own future reference, I share notes from my reading.

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Is that a Fish in Your Ear? notes on the 2011 book by David Bellos on translation

Translation isn’t about specific word choice. It’s about meaning.

But, then, there are many different kinds of translation. The very old act of translation both creates and defends language in an interconnected world. Earlier this summer, I finished a 2011 book by translator David Bellos called “Is that a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.” [PDF] Find a review here of it. This is a different approach to understanding language, which has been an interest of mine for years.

You should read the book. For my own purposes, I’ve captured my notes below.

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The Happiness Equation

Develop your internal motivation. Focus. Be kind. Ignore the rest.

I read Neil Pasricha’s 2016 book The Happiness Equation as part of a pandemic-fatigue powered period of self-discovery. It certainly has its gimmicks and many of the concepts felt familiar to me. Still, I did appreciate the book and came away refocused on returning to being a happier person during such a tumultuous time.

Below I share a few of my notes from reading the book, though I recommend you buy a copy yourself.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein

Words and sentences don’t make much sense when they aren’t entangled with each other. They all can carry wildly different meanings depending on the context and the speaker’s intent. This is a “language game.”

This is one of the many contributions that garnered intellectual celebrity for Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian logician and philosopher. He is a philosophy student’s favorite philosopher, but A. C. Grayling argued in his 2001 aptly named “Wittgenstein : a very short introduction” that his academic celebrity may be unwarranted.

Grayling says Wittgenstein is primarily adored by “aphorism hunters.” I read Grayling’s short book because I wanted to ease my way into Wittgenstein as part of a philosophical exploration I had earlier this year. Pandemic, am I right?

The book was a helpful text, and I still appreciated playing with Wittgenstein’s evolution, from his iconic 1921 Tractatus and his Philosophical Investigations, which was published posthumously and seemed to contradict many of his arguments from his first book.

Find my notes below

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Homo Deus: notes on Yuval Noah Harrari 2017 book

Advancements in artificial intelligence could bring about a world in which humans are secondary to self-learning algorithms.

That’s one of the big themes in the 2017 book Homo Deus, a followup by historian and popular intellectual Yuval Noah Harrari on his 2014 book Sapiens. Even more than his first, Homo Deus has been criticized for its wide-sweeping generalizations and his science generalizations. Harrari is one of the chief architects of a kind of techno-pessism so I still find his approach helpful to follow.

He’s a great storyteller, and beyond any debunked science, he engages with concepts I found interesting. I’m sharing notes here for myself. The book is worth reading if only to grasp a view on the treacherous waters some fear are coming due to technical advancements.

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Notes from the 2016 book ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert Gordon

The “special century” between 1870 and 1970 was not an economic transformation to repeat. It was an anomalous period of exceptional change super-powered by the remarkable inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution not to be repeated.

So argues Robert Gordon in his influential, academic and deeply researched 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. It is one of the better respected contributions to the conversation how quickly will quality of life continue to advance. Technological advances tend to not reverse, so his point is not that we’ll regress but that we’re due for a long period of languishing growth and advancement.

For millennia until the 1750s, there was very modest rates of economic growth. Then the First Industrial Revolution ushered in slightly faster growth, which setup the second, which we most commonly call the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century. That spurred the fastest advancement in quality of life in human history. By the 1970s, progress slowed. The third, technological revolution only resulted in a short-lived return to high grow in the decade 1994-2004. That was the lone answer to economist Robert Solow’s famous 1984 quip: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In his book, Gordon argues we’re unlikely to repeat the rate of gains of that special century. It’s an interesting addition to the familiar techno-optimist versus techno-pessimist argument. Below I share some of notes from the book. It is dense and thorough, so it’s hardly light reading, but I devoured it. It’s an important addition to the economic literature. I recommend reading it.

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Notes on Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 classic ‘Tipping Point’

Nothing more needs to be said on influential journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s first breakout book Tipping Point, which published 15 years ago. Like a lot of popular books, it has been aggressively criticized and dismissed.

Even if his theme is challenged, there are small points that are interesting. Though I read this several years ago, I just reread it and took down a few notes for my own future perusal. I’m sharing them here

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Notes from the classic 2001 business book “Good to Great”

Data can point to commonalities of companies that go from being just good to being really great.

Published in 2001 as the middle in a trio of business books written by Stanford University’s Jim Collins, Good to Great is a classic of the genre. Though I’ve heard it cited many times, I only just read it earlier this year. The concept is a likeable one: Collins and a team of graduate students sorted through lots of data to find very similar peer companies, some of which accelerated into greatness and others which only treaded water. Then they sorted through to find what’s similar. Lots of stuff like this happens today — like this popular Medium post.

Twenty years later, the book still has value, even if many of the companies have faded from their greatness and it’s always easy to tease a business book. At its most simple, Collins introduces a simple framework that I’ve played with for my own company (his “hedgehog concept” is a way to communicate: What is that your company can do better than anyone else in the world that can drive financial success?)

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