A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 


Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.

Related links

Reviews of other science books


The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)


Particle physics


Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.

Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)


And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)


Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Famous ripping yarn, the first novel to feature the dashing hero Richard Hannay, I’d forgotten it is set in the last months of peace before the outbreak of World War I, with Germany the enemy and the threat of war hanging over every sentence. Buchan wrote it in bed while suffering from the duodenal ulcer which was to plague him all his life. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year.


Richard Hannay is 37 and bored. He’s back from South Africa where he made his pile as an engineer and has returned to the old country. His neighbour Franklin Scudder accosts him with a cock and bull story about some kind of conspiracy to assassinate the visiting Greek premier which intrigues Hannay enough to let him stay in his flat for safety but, returning a day later, he finds Scudder dead. Hannay takes his pocket book and escapes to King’s Cross and thence by train to the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, with a view of staying at liberty till he can return to London and warn the authorities.

This begins a long drawn-out chase and pursuit across Scotland countryside which sees Hannay sleeping rough, stealing cars, incongruously roped into giving election speeches, donning multiple disguises, getting captured by the baddies – who happen to have a Scottish base – and escaping by dynamiting his way out of his prison, before escaping back to London to warn the authorities and then leading them to the south coast resort which turns out to be the location of the thirty nine steps and foiling the enemies’ plans at the last moment.

The plot doesn’t bear too much examining. It’s not at all clear why he has to go to Scotland of all places to lie low. And it’s a whopping coincidence that the baddies happen to have their base in just the part of Scotland he decides to go hide in and that, in all the hundreds of square miles of heather to choose from, he happens to stumble straight into it.

And the initial mainspring of the plot – preventing the assassination of the Greek Prime Minister – which drives the flight to Scotland and all sorts of complications, not only fails but is casually cast aside (his assassination is mentioned in one throwaway line towards the end) to be replaced by a completely new thread: Now a member of the Black Stone gang impersonates the First Sea Lord in order to attend a high level meeting about Britain’s sea defences and it is only because Hannay happens by almighty coincidence to be sitting outside that very meeting, that he recognises the imposter as a member of the baddy gang (even though none of his erstwhile colleagues do!) which sets in motion the final chase to the villa on the south coast.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Hitchcock movie completely rewrites the plot, not least to lumber Hannay with an attractive female co-star for most of the film (no women at all in the original). In the movie the Thirty-Nine Steps is a secret organisation of spies dedicated to overthrowing Britain etc. In the novel they are the steps from a coastal holiday house down to the beach where, at high tide, 10.17pm, the German spy carrying plans of Britain’s war preparations will be picked up by boat and spirited off to the Fatherland. In the book the climax comes when Hannay captures the spies as they try to descend the steps; in the movie it comes in a crowded theatre in the West End.

The shilling shocker

Buchan is candid in his preface to friend about the genre he was writing in:

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. (Preface)

And the characters are well aware of the type of text they’re appearing in (just as Philip Marlowe feels he’s in a dime novel and Alistair MacLean’s characters refer to Hollywood dialogue and ham acting of the baddies they’re up against):

”The Black Stone,’ he repeated. ‘Der Schwarze Stein. It’s like a penny novelette. (Ch 7)

I wonder when this genre was named, when it became known: were Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novels ‘shockers’ and ‘dime novels’ in 1888? [No. See Wikipedia link below.] And who created, who were the godfathers of the mythos of glamorous travel and adventure? [Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling.]

The novel includes an innkeeper with frustrated literary ambitions bemoaning his boring life and wishing he saw more of the world – a character which allows Buchan to situate the text relative to its forebears.

‘Nothing comes here but motor-cars full of fat women, who stop for lunch, and a fisherman or two in the spring, and the shooting tenants in August. There is not much material to be got out of that. I want to see life, to travel the world, and write things like Kipling and Conrad. But the most I’ve done yet is to get some verses printed in Chambers’s Journal.’  (Chapter 3)

By God!’ he whispered, drawing his breath in sharply, ‘it is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.’ (Ch 3)

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. (Ch 9)

Local colour

The novel is as interesting for the insights it gives into life at the time as for the ‘plot’: London, as so often, as at the start of the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, is portrayed negatively:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. (Ch 1)

Anti-semitism The text contains some shockingly anti-semitic comments. They aren’t incidental but intrinsic to Buchan and Hannay’s ideology, the casualness with which they sum up and categorise nations, whether the Germans or Boers or, as here, Jews.

When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’ (Ch 1)

Casual racism which none of us would dream of today.

It rang desperately true, and the first yarn, if you understand me, had been in a queer way true also in spirit. The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago. (Ch 4)

No sex please we’re British No women characters. The word ‘woman’ occurs just six times in the text: there’s a fat woman in the 3rd class railway carriage to Scotland, then a few women shopkeepers. This is emphatically a man’s world.


As you can see Buchan’s prose style is perfect for the job, clear and crisp and unhesitating (compare and contrast the hesitancies and infelicities which mar almost all Alistair MacLean’s books).

Natural scenery It is easy to overlook but Buchan describes natural scenery with a quick practised eye which the setting of rural Scotland gives him plenty of opportunity to do.

If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. (Ch 7)

And since a good deal of the novel amounts to a prolonged chase across the Dumfries & Galloway region of Scotland, there is page after page of wonderful nature description.

Pukka His style is not only clear and lucid and swift. It is larded with the attitude and vocabulary of the upper-class public school chap of the day, revealed by the pukka, posh phraseology of almost every sentence.

It was about the beastliest moment of my life, for I’m no good at these cold-blooded resolutions. Still I managed to rake up the pluck to set my teeth and choke back the horrid doubts that flooded in on me. I simply shut off my mind and pretended I was doing an experiment as simple as Guy Fawkes fireworks. (Ch 6)

Nostalgia The combination of pukka phraseology and crisp confident description, often of a kind of rural idyll for which we 21st century city dwellers pine, along with his depiction of a simpler, more innocent world, drenches the novel with nostalgic appeal, over and above the supposed thriller elements.

I found a pretty cottage with a lawn running down to the stream, and a perfect jungle of guelder-rose and lilac flanking the path. (Ch 7)

I think it’s the clarity and evocativeness of these descriptions, along with the Antiques Roadshow innocence, which overcome our qualms about his racism and misogyny, and help conceal the wild coincidences of the plot. Above all it’s his flashing swift style which makes the books still so readable a century after their first publication.

The road led through a wood of great beeches and then into a shallow valley, with the green backs of downs peeping over the distant trees. After Scotland the air smelt heavy and flat, but infinitely sweet, for the limes and chestnuts and lilac bushes were domes of blossom. Presently I came to a bridge, below which a clear slow stream flowed between snowy beds of water-buttercups. A little above it was a mill; and the lasher made a pleasant cool sound in the scented dusk. (Ch 7)

Related links

Cover for the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Cover the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1915)

The Valley of Fear was serialised in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915. Like the first two Holmes novellas it is divided into two parts: the first half is a murder mystery set in a quiet English country house; part two provides the backstory to the murder, which began 15 years earlier in the grim, industrial coalmining districts of America. Note: America again.

The ‘now’ of the main story is the early days of Holmes’s career – ‘Those were the early days at the end of the ’80’s’. This allows the brief reintroduction of Professor Moriarty and lavish descriptions of him as the Napoleon of crime etc in the first and last chapters.


‘The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that’s the man!.. When you have one of the first brains of Europe up against you, and all the powers of darkness at his back, there are infinite possibilities…  (Part 1, chapter 1)

‘No, no, my good sir,’ said Holmes. ‘There is a master hand here. It is no case of sawed-off shotguns and clumsy six-shooters. You can tell an old master by the sweep of his brush. I can tell a Moriarty when I see one. This crime is from London, not from America.’ (Epilogue)

The superlative criminal against the superlative detective. Comic strip stuff, the godfather of a thousand pulp magazines and comics…

Part one: The Tragedy of Birlstone (the country house murder mystery)

Birlstone is a Jacobean country house with a moat and drawbridge on the northern border of Sussex. In chapter 1 Holmes receives a message in cipher warning that danger threatens its owner, but even as Holmes and Watson decipher the message they are overtaken by events for the police come to say the owner, John Douglas, has been murdered. Holmes and a London detective, MacDonald travel to the house, but are puzzled by discrepancies at the crime scene. Apparently, someone has broken in, blown Douglas’s head clean off with a double-barrelled shotgun, and escaped through the open window and across the moat.

The cast of characters is interviewed one by one: tall beautiful Mrs Douglas; the family friend Banks who may or may not have been having an affair with her, and thus have motive; Ames the quiet butler; the housekeeper et al. It is the cast from a country house murder mystery, each character with apparent motives and only the supersleuth can find the truth. The setting and plot made me think of Inspector Poirot and indeed, it was only a few years later, in 1920, that Agatha Christie introduced the Belgian detective, and the format crystalised into a long-running genre.

In part one the mystery at the house is fully solved to everyone’s satisfaction. But why was the murdered man pursued? That requires part two and the backstory in America. What makes these stories so nostalgic and comforting is the old fashioned narrative voice which is unafraid of buttonholing the reader and guiding us around the twists and turns of the text:

And now, my long-suffering readers, I will ask you to come away with me for a time, far from the Sussex Manor House of Birlstone, and far also from the year of grace in which we made our eventful journey which ended with the strange story of the man who had been known as John Douglas. I wish you to journey back some twenty years in time, and westward some thousands of miles in space, that I may lay before you a singular and terrible narrative—so singular and so terrible that you may find it hard to believe that even as I tell it, even so did it occur.

Do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished. As you read on you will find that this is not so. And when I have detailed those distant events and you have solved this mystery of the past, we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street, where this, like so many other wonderful happenings, will find its end. (Part one, chapter 7)

The story may be grim and violent; but the telling and the teller, dear sweet Watson, are as honest and reassuring as possible.


For whatever reason, the first part of this novella contains an unprecedented description of Holmes working through various theories and scenarios. Generally, in almost all the stories, his progress through and discarding of multiple theories is only hinted at – the texts tend to focus on the final dramatic revelation of the true events. Here, tens of pages are spent discussing with Watson the pros and cons of various scenarios which fit the observed facts, talking them through in detail and rethinking them as inconvenient facts block progress. I found this very enjoyable and for this reason I prefer it to the two earlier novellas.

Part two: The Scowrers (lawless America)

Like the two first novellas, The Valley of Fear has a backstory set in a distant land – for the second time the wild and lawless USA – which explains why the central character has been tracked across America and then to England by a vengeful secret society. In A Study in Scarlet it was the good guy chasing two wicked Mormons; here it is the good guy seeking sanctuary from the Society of Freemen, a countrywide association of working men pledged to self-defence which, in the sinister Vermissa Valley, has been perverted into a league of assassins and murderers and nicknamed ‘the Scowrers’.

Hard man McMurdo arrives in Vermissa Valley from Chicago where he was inducted into the freemen. He quickly ingratiates himself with the Bodymaster of the lodge, Boss McGinty, by talking brave, and taking part in various beatings and murders. Sentimentally, he falls in love with the tall blonde Swedish daughter of his landlord and worms his way deeper into the heart of the evil gang…

Animal imagery

There had always been animal imagery in the Holmes stories – ‘tiger’ is his favourite animal with which to compare criminals throughout the stories, appearing eight times in this text, 10 times in the Return stories – but there seemed to be more animal analogies in this book, maybe reflecting the harsher, crueller atmosphere of the story.

  • ‘Porlock is important, not for himself, but for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself the pilot fish with the shark, the jackal with the lion—anything that is insignificant in companionship with what is formidable: not only formidable, Watson, but sinister—in the highest degree sinister… You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?’ (Part 1, Chapter 1)
  • Among the older men were many whose features showed the tigerish, lawless souls within.
  • Only once did McMurdo see him, a sly, little gray-haired rat of a man, with a slinking gait and a sidelong glance which was charged with malice. (2: 5)
  • McGinty had instruments enough already; but he recognized that this was a supremely able one. He felt like a man holding a fierce bloodhound in leash. There were curs to do the smaller work; but some day he would slip this creature upon its prey. (2:5)
  • The long room was crowded, and through the haze of tobacco smoke he saw the tangled black mane of the Bodymaster, the cruel, unfriendly features of Baldwin, the vulture face of Harraway, the secretary, and a dozen more who were among the leaders of the lodge. (2:6)
  •  There was not a man in the room whose hands had not been reddened a dozen times before. They were as hardened to human murder as a butcher to sheep. (2:7)
  • At the sight Boss McGinty gave the roar of a wounded bear and plunged for the half-opened door. (2:7)

Socialism and Fenianism

A lot could be written about the true history of the Molly Maguires and their role in American industrial relations ie were they mafia-style criminals or heroes of the working man? and similarly about the role of American emigrants in founding and funding Irish republicanism via secret societies like the Fenians in the later 1800s.

Presumably, like any conservative professional man of his day and age, Conan Doyle thought both were criminal operations. Probably, as an author of popular fiction he was only interested in them insofar as they provided plausible fodder for his ripping yarns. A hundred years later, their use in this story indicates the rifts and fractures of two rich, troubled societies.Crime novels by definition focus on criminal elements but, insofar as Conan Doyle chooses secret societies as the core of his two American novellas, he is highlighting not only the simple crimes he requires, but also the complex injustices which lie behind them.

Just as in the Hound, a central character voices the reader’s thoughts, that he is reading a pulp fiction and just as in the Hound voicing it, doesn’t dispel it:

‘When I reached this place I learned that I was wrong and that it wasn’t a dime novel after all.’ (2:7)

The finishing end

Oh it is, it is a dime novel – but a dime novel lifted out of its genre by the presence of Holmes. Also by the ending.An initial reading highlights the interesting parallel Conan Doyle makes between his ascetic, intellectual detective Holmes and the heroic, tough, courageous Pinkerton agent, Birdy Edwards. Just as the violence of the Scowrers is brought to an end by the devoted Pinkerton man, so the murder mystery is solved, as hundreds of other cases have been in the short stories, by the soothing presence of Holmes. Both heal clear the air, capture the criminals, cage the animals and make society safe again, as a doctor sets a broken bone and cures a disease.

Except they don’t. The hero doesn’t escape. Holmes doesn’t save his man. Moriarty cuts him down in his prime, thus leaving a bitter and ominous aftertaste to the book. It was serialised during the initial hysteria of the Great War. On the face of it, Conan Doyle used the novella to add more depth to the spooky figure of the Napoleon of crime, who only actually appears in one previous story, the Final Problem. And Sherlockains have not been slow to point out the contradiction between Dr Watson seeming familiar with Moriarty here in the late 1880s, and yet blissfully ignorant of him in the Final Problem, set later.

But we know Conan Doyle cared little about anomalies and contradictions, having Watson wounded in the shoulder int he first novel and the leg in the second etc. Seems to me he was happy to sacrifice that kind of pedantic consistency for the much greater dramatic affect the end of this book creates. On the face of it Holmes’s staring off into the distance artistically anticipates the final death struggle at the Reichenbach Falls; but given the times, this ending seems to me to echo the dark atmosphere of His Last Bow, giving this flimsy though pacey yarn a powerfully dark and ominous undertow.

We all sat in silence for some minutes while those fateful eyes still strained to pierce the veil. (Epilogue)

The Valley of Fear on Project Gutenberg

Holmes examining the cipher which opens The Valley of Fear, 1915

Holmes examining the cipher which opens The Valley of Fear, 1915


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

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