My Brief History By Stephen Hawking, Bantam, £12.99
The author of A Brief History of Time has now come up with the story of his life. My Brief History by Stephen Hawking is lucid , gripping and is relatively brief compared to the history of the universe. The book offers an intense yet candid portrayal of the scientist. It opens up many windows about him that one did not know existed before.
Hawking was a Yorkshire lad, who was born in a family of farmers on January 8, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. While Galileo fell prey to the religious ideologies of Rome, Hawking was struck by a motor neuron disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis before he was due to leave for his brilliant career at Cambridge. He conquered death by sheer grit and a passion to discover more about the universe.
Already engaged to Jane Wilde, Hawking realized that he has to find a job. He says, “If we were to get married, I had to get a job, and to get a job, I had to finish my PhD. I therefore started working for the first time in my life. To my surprise, I found I liked it. May be it is not fair to call it work, though. Someone once said scientists and prostitutes get paid for doing what they enjoy”. Hawking’s father went to Oxford. Hawking was born at Oxford during the war and ended up there as an undergraduate.
At Oxford, Hawking did what no natural science student would usually do. He became a cox of the college boat and indulged in boat races and the club life that goes with it. The book has beautiful pictures of “The Boat Club at Play” which amply demonstrates the eccentric bonhomie of Oxbridge students.
In one of the lectures of Fred Hoyle in 1964 at the Royal Society, a cheeky Stephen Hawking, shocked everybody by pointing out that the steady state theory of the universe — constructed by Hoyle and Jayant Narlikar — would lead to all masses going to infinity and thus must be wrong.
Hawking points out candidly in this book that he used to share an office with Narlikar and had access to a draft of the research paper. So he worked out and found a gaping hole in the theory. Hoyle was furious but Hawking was right. However, finally, all was settled amicably and Hoyle also offered him a job. Almost immediately after that Hawking became interested in black holes and the casual structure theory that he developed with Roger Penrose.
Hawking muses, “My work on black holes began with a eureka moment in 1970, a few days after the birth of my daughter, Lucy.” He discovered that black holes remain black because of strong gravity and not even light can escape through these. The famous Hawking radiation formula establishes the relationship between gravity and thermodynamics. He became famous almost overnight.
I met Hawking at the California Institute of Technology in 1974. He was already wheelchair bound but could still speak. He was a darling of Richard Feynman and was invited by Kip Thorne, his collaborator at Caltech. I recall Penrose also came down to Caltech about the same time.
At Cambridge, one bumped into him at the King’s parade but never thought much about those brief encounters. However, at Caltech he was certainly the centre of attraction. Already a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 32, Hawking was then at his peak. I got to know him through his student at Caltech and I adored him.
He just wanted to prove to the world that he is as good as anybody else, if not better. He also has no airs and is a just like another normal person when he is around his children and family. At the end, he turned out to be like any other normal man, but when it comes to creativity and originality, he is a phenomenon.
Hawking, was still relatively unknown. But all that changed dramatically with the publication of A Brief History of Time .
In 1979 he was elected to the Lucasian chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, a chair previously occupied by Paul Adrian Maurice Dirac. Around 1982, Stephen started thinking about a book that is simple and lucid enough to be understood by everyone .
Bantam finally published the book. A Brief History of Time book remained on the The New York Times best-seller list for 147 weeks and on the London Times list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. It has been translated into 40 languages, and has sold over 10 million copies world-wide.
Hawking says, “I found most of the reviews, although favourable, rather unilluminating. They tended to follow a single formula: “Stephen Hawking has Lou Gehrig’s disease (American version, tend to make disease even more dreadful than what it is, which is bad enough) or motor neuron disease... He is confined to a wheelchair, cannot speak and can only more X number of fingers (where X seems to very form one to three)...”
Glamourising his genius and how he overcame the odds of his disability must have boosted the sales of the book to a great extent. But Hawking candidly admits that changing the title of the book from “short history of time” by Guzzardi of Bantam, to “Brief History of Time” did the trick. A Brief History of Time was published in 1988.
By now, Stephen Hawking had become a a cult figure with a huge following and was more well-known than even the Hollywood stars. I recall a write up some time ago where Vanessa Redgrave was thrilled to meet him. Reportedly, Hawking had done some impromptu dancing on his wheelchair. At times he did show off and why not. He once went for a zero gravity experience to popularize space travel. He must have thought that if astronauts can walk in zero gravity then why not him.
As time went by, it became more difficult for him to speak.He could speak only three words per minute by twitching his right eye, with the help of an incredible software made by American and British experts.
Jane left and went off with Jonathan perhaps with a desire to lead a normal life ; celebrity status with a crippling physical disability can be a heady mix and may be disastrous for people who are close. Stephen moved in with his nurse, Elaine Mason, and married her in 1995. Elaine eventually left; he is alone now with only a housekeeper and the cosmos in his head, desperately trying to articulate the crazy goings-on in the universe.
I was visiting Cambridge some years ago. The Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics was celebrating fifty years of its existence. Hawking, serene and frail in his wheel chair, presented a talk with the help of an artificial voice, generated by computer technology, where he compared the 1970 eureka moment in his own inimitable way. He said, “It was better than sex, it lasts longer”. He clearly shocked people to make his point.
In the evening there was a banquet at the King’s. Hawking was wheeled in at the end of the table. After dinner I went to him and briefly reminded him about the 1974 experience at Caltech. After some time he managed to write, very slowly, on his computer screen, “But that was a long time ago”! I mumbled, “It was long time ago, may be, but that was the best of times for Hawking radiation”. Half-heartedly, he wrote down, “Could be.”
I came out of the hall in the cold, foggy evening with a heady feeling, knowing that Hawking’s legacy will always burn bright.