BOOK OF THE WEEK
Stephen Hawking: A Memoir Of Friendship And Physics by Leonard Mlodinow (Allen Lane £20, 240pp)
The chances are, if you happened to ask a passer-by to name a theoretical physicist who had achieved global renown since Einstein died, you’d hear the name Stephen Hawking.
But ask them exactly what Stephen Hawking did, other than write a book about what he did, and they would probably be stumped.
It’s the wheelchair. And the terrible disability. And the film starring Eddie Redmayne. And the bestselling book A Brief History Of Time, which everyone bought, most people started and almost no one finished. It’s only the physics, his life’s work, that no one knows about.
Stephen Hawking marries Jane Wilde, 14th July 1965. Hawking, theoretical physicist achieved global renown
Hawking was diagnosed with a type of motor neurone disease in 1963, at the age of 21. ‘I felt somewhat of a tragic character,’ he said of the event.
Motor neurone disease kills you by destroying your motor neurons, which reach from the brain to the spinal cord, and from there to the muscles throughout the body. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost.
In Hawking, the disease started in his legs and worked its way up. When he lost control of his thighs, he could no longer stand. When it attacked his chest, it became difficult to breathe. In 1985 he had to have a tracheostomy, which meant he breathed through a tube in his throat and could no longer speak.
As Leonard Mlodinow says in this kind-hearted but occasionally terrifying book: ‘His mind worked perfectly, but its carrier had become inert.’
Professor Hawking in the 1970’s with his children Robert and Lucy
Death from motor neurone disease almost always comes within two to five years of diagnosis. In one out of 20 cases, a patient will live 20 or more years. Hawking lived with it for more than 50.
Mlodinow points out, not unreasonably, that Hawking had no idea this was going to happen. He always thought death was just around the corner. He had no time to waste. As a young man he had been a gadabout, without focus. ‘Where some in his situation would have found God, Stephen found physics,’ says Mlodinow. ‘He decided to finish his PhD. He found, to his surprise, that he liked the work.’
Mlodinow is a science writer who has published several highly readable books, but he is also a working scientist, and this duality, as well as an obviously equable, naturally sunny temperament, recommended him as a collaborator to Hawking, who could be a grumpy old bugger.
Jane and Stephen in the 1960’s
They wrote two books together, A Briefer History Of Time and a more ambitious project, The Grand Design. This new book by Mlodinow is a straight-down-the-line memoir, of Hawking’s work, life, loves and, latterly, his friendship with Mlodinow.
Hawking chose cosmology as his subject not least because so few other theoretical physicists were interested in it.
Others saw the subject as ‘dead’; he saw it as ‘ripe’. His first great triumph came in the mid-1960s when he proved that Einstein’s theory of general relativity meant that the universe can only have started with a ‘big bang’.
Before Hawking, this was just an idea, one of several, but he verified it. From there he started working on black holes, before they were even called that, and much of what we now know about those mysterious phenomena originated in that gas giant-sized mind of his.
Mlodinow explains the science with a clarity and an elegance that Hawking himself notably lacked in A Brief History Of Time. I mean, I did maths at university and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. One scientist said that the more physics you knew, the less comprehensible the book was, although I’m not sure I entirely believe that. Looked nice on the shelf, though.
Hawking emerges as a mass of contradictions. A rational, irreligious man, impatient of cant, he nonetheless took 80 vitamin pills every day. He was brittle, subject to chronic chest infections, weaker with each passing year. He loved to socialise, go to parties, travel the world.
Professor Stephen Hawking and first wife Jane with children Robert, Lucy & Tim
Hawking, physicist and cosmologist at the Cambridge University, pictured with his former wife Jane and their children Robert and Lucy in the seventies
He went up in the ‘vomit comet’, a specially modified Boeing 727 that dives repeatedly to give its passengers the experience of zero gravity. He loved Star Trek, and appeared on the show as a hologram of himself.
He could be hugely generous to carers and family members. He was constantly late and never apologised. People called it ‘Hawking time’.
He adored fireworks and set up enormous, expensive displays. ‘Sometimes someone would call the police, and they’d come and tell him to stop. Then the police would leave and Stephen would have the fireworks start up again.’
Jane with Stephen. All three women that Hawking loved, curiously, were very religious
He also had a notably tempestuous love life. Having been married to Jane for more than 20 years, Hawking fell madly in love with one of his carers, Elaine, and he and Jane divorced. Mlodinow reports on the turbulent relationship with Elaine, which also ended in divorce.
Later on, when he was in his late-60s, Hawking fell again for Diana, but didn’t marry her because his children would have disapproved. All three women, curiously, were very religious.
‘Stephen was like an actor,’ said Elaine. ‘He needed to be the centre of attention, the centre of the universe . . . He loved people. He had a very tough life but he was an incredibly brave man. He never, ever complained . . . Deep down, he was my only love.’
And if you were wondering, as I was, whether he was sexually active, the answer is that he was.
What might he have achieved if he hadn’t been so tragically disabled? Rather less than he did, thought Hawking. ‘It helped me focus,’ he told Mlodinow.
Unable to write an equation much after the age of 30, he conceived and developed his ideas in geometrical terms instead, which enabled him to come at things from a different direction. No, I don’t understand that either, but you can only respect his sheer drive and determination.
Mlodinow hasn’t written a warts-and-all portrait. Indeed, his book is so awash with admiration it sometimes approaches hagiography. But I’m not sure that’s a problem.
What really comes over is his modest delight that he made a friend of such an eminent man, and his explanations of the science are startlingly good. You will learn from this what you signally failed to learn from A Brief History Of Time. Looks nice on the shelf, too.