Why Stephen Hawking's ‘A Brief History of Time’ Was a Huge Bestseller

Who wouldn't want to understand the universe?

Stephen Hawking died on Wednesday, but he left behind him decades of discoveries that have changed the way we view the universe. Hawking’s achievements throughout his 76 years on Earth are extensive, but one remarkable thing about the famous physicist was his ability to take the most complex scientific theories and distill them for a wide audience.

What might be the best example of this is Hawking’s most famous book, 1988’s A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. The book is a comprehensive meditation on the existence, origin, and inevitable fate of the universe. If that sounds heavy, well, it is. But Hawking was determined to transfer his field of study to a mass audience, and, according to the BBC, hoped to make some money to provide for his family as his health declined.

It worked. Upon its release, A Brief History of Time sold out in the U.S. in a matter of days, and was eventually translated into 35 languages and sold over 10 million copies. The book propelled Hawking into the public eye and kicked off his life as a true celebrity physicist. It also showed that across borders and around the world, it’s not just academics that long to understand how the universe works.

The topics covered in A Brief History of Time are gravity, the Big Bang, time, black holes, and physicists’ search for a grand unifying theory. The book is Hawking’s attempt to discuss two scientific fields — general relativity and quantum mechanics — and make them accessible for a lay audience. He also delves into his hope that one day there will be a “unifying theory” that will describe everything about the universe in a way that everyone can understand, and will unify all the different aspects of physics.

Hawking’s editor, Peter Guzzardi, wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday of Hawking’s desire to unite these two fields. “As Stephen would so poetically put it, if scientists could come up a grand unified theory that explained both these fields we would truly understand everything: we would finally ‘know the mind of God.’”

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