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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lure of the Unfathomable

Stephen Hawking admits his international mega-hit "A Brief History of Time" was a bit of a slog. Translated into 40 languages since its debut in 1988 and selling more than 10 million copies worldwide, the tome is probably the most unread book of all time. Hands up all those who got past Chapter 2. Be honest now. Notwithstanding the legendary arcana of book No. 1, Hawking's second effort at "popular" science writing, "The Universe in a Nutshell," is currently climbing best-seller lists.

From an equally daunting corner of the physics pantheon came another surprise science success story, Brian Greene's 1999 book on string theory, "The Elegant Universe." Following Hawking, Greene is now penning his second volume, for which he is rumored to have received a whopping advance. An elegant stylist himself, Greene acknowledges that string theory requires a grasp of large slabs of the most fiendishly difficult mathematics humans have ever encountered, and although his text is mercifully free of equations, "The Elegant Universe" remains a difficult text.

What is going on here? Why are so many people paying hard-earned cash for books they can barely begin to understand? Part of the answer, surely, is vanity. A Hawking or Greene sitting on the coffee table -- preferably with a few pages conspicuously bent back at the corners -- sends a powerful message to visiting friends, prospective dates, and (above all) to oneself, that an intellect is present in the house. Whether or not you read them, possession alone looks good. Intellectual vanity is as potent a force as the sartorial variety.

But most purchasers are honorable in their intentions--at least at the time of acquisition. They want to read; they believe they will read; they just don't quite get around to it. Which brings us to the question of why the arcane reaches of theoretical physics attract such interest at all. There is no obvious reason why they should. Before "A Brief History" came out, Hawking's publishers worried that they had an unsalable monster on their hands. No one, least of all Hawking, expected the breathtaking success the book was ultimately to have. Greene and I share the same editor, who tells me that our publishing house, too, was quite unprepared for the success of "The Elegant Universe."

Hawking in particular has transcended mere fame, rising into the realm of the iconic. Hawking has been accorded the ultimate celebrity nod -- a starring role in an episode of "The Simpsons." In Britain, he also appeared in a commercial for breakfast cereal. On "Star Trek: The Next Generation" he entered the Holodeck and played chess with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, the suggestion being that he was their equal.

When one buys a book by Hawking, one is buying more than just a science book -- the unstated suggestion is that one is getting the words of a prophet. In contemporary Western culture, there is a very real sense in which physics has taken on some of the trappings of a religion. Where once we looked to the Bible as the source of ultimate "truth," now we look to physicists and their quest for a "theory of everything." At present, it is string theory and its more general cousin, M-theory, which look like the prime contenders for being such a theory. Greene, as a leading string theorist, is one of the high priests of this mathematical path to "enlightenment."

As with most religions, there is also a mythological dimension at work here, for in many cultures the high priest was also a seer -- someone credited with literally being able to see through to another plane of reality. In the modern West, physicists like Hawking and Greene have come to hold the cultural position of seers. Hawking in particular fits this bill.

In tribal societies seers were often physically marked -- they might be blind, deaf, epileptic, or crippled. Though his language is mathematics, Hawking is the archetypal crippled seer -- his body may be hobbled to a wheelchair, but his mind is unbounded, soaring beyond the mundane terrestrial world to the far reaches of the cosmos, there to engage with vast and mysterious supernatural powers. Black holes of unimaginable strength able to gobble entire galaxies into their maws; tunnels through spacetime that would take us back into the past; and wormholes to other exotic universes -- these are the mythological "creatures" of the age of science.

A book by Hawking is a work of science, but it is also a work of modern mythology, which like all great mythological tales promises the excitement of encounter with awe-inspiring magical forces. Hawking may be a great physicist, but the key to his appeal lies not in the rigor of his equations, but rather in the doors he opens to our imaginations.

Margaret Wertheim, author of "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet," contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.