Too Brief a History of a Great Man of Our Times

My review from this weekend’s Irish Examiner

Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work 
Kitty Ferguson 
Bantam; £20, Kindle £10.80

IN ATTEMPTING to cover both the life and the work of the world’s most recognisable living physicist, Kitty Ferguson’s new volume on Professor Stephen Hawking sets itself a monumental challenge.

On one hand, the book functions well enough as a primer for those who know little about Hawking or the development of physics and cosmology after the Second World War; on the other, its star-struck, largely surface assessment of Hawking’s life struggles as a biography while its exploration of his work puts itself in direct competition with Hawking’s own popular science writing.

The latter is a particular problem given that many will be drawn to this study after reading one of Hawking’s own books. By comparison, Ferguson’s writing lacks the palpable excitement which should come from a front row seat to the unravelling of the universe’s mysteries. Indeed, the physics discussions here only really come alive when Hawking himself is quoted. “Information is not destroyed in black holes,” he says, “it’s just not returned in a useful way to the universe, like burning an encyclopedia”. Those familiar with Hawking’s writing and lectures will recognise that line — and others — from numerous previous appearances.

Contextualizing and explaining the work of a theoretical physicist is always going to present more difficulties than, say, the biography of a poet. The reader must be familiarised with specialist topics such as singularities and cosmic inflation. It is no easy task, and while Ferguson does well to bring newcomers up to speed, recreational readers of popular science will already be familiar with a lot of this material.

On the biographical side of things, Ferguson’s book has more leeway to produce something fresh yet here too it fails to dig deep. Some, but not all of this, is a consequence of style. The reader is rarely swept away by the intertwined stories of Hawking’s soaring scientific success and his inexorable physical decline. The facts are here, but their delivery feels flat and lacks an organic flow.

The illusion of narrative, the essential theatrical aspect of biography, is almost completely absent and at times the volume becomes more like a succession of statements organised chronologically: Hawking attended a conference on gravity, Hawking published a paper on wormholes in spacetime, and so on. New and detailed interviews with the people in Hawking’s life could have helped but, by her own admission, Ferguson chose not to make this “an investigative thing”.

More’s the pity, because Hawking’s story of strength and resilience warrants a more exhaustive account. Almost as soon as he arrived at Cambridge as a doctoral student, the 20-year-old was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease. “The realisation that I had an incurable disease, that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock,” he says, doctors at the time giving him just two years to live. Earlier this year he turned 70.

To Ferguson’s credit, Hawking emerges as far more than the caricatured, synthesized voice he sometimes risks being reduced to. For 30 years he served as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, heir to a position once held by Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac. His book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10m copies and, though now almost completely paralysed, he has travelled the world, been a father and a grandfather, as well as portraying himself on TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation and on The Simpsons. That he has refined humanity’s understanding of the structure and history of the universe is all the more remarkable given how full his life has been.

Though technology is widely credited with his continued independence, the truth is Hawking relies just as much on the family and Cambridge-funded nursing staff around him. The human consequences of Hawking’s illness are most apparent in the figure of his first wife Jane. A mother, a campaigner for disabled rights, and a full-time caregiver working towards a PhD of her own, one admires Jane Hawking’s strength as much as one feels the strain placed on her marriage by Hawking’s deteriorating physical condition. Beset by “feelings of depression, inadequacy, and low self-esteem”, it was perhaps inevitable that, as revealed in her memoir, she would develop a romantic relationship outside her marriage.

Hawking also developed a long-term entanglement, in his case with one of his nurses, and his marriage to Jane ended just short of its 25th anniversary. His second marriage, soured by allegations of physical abuse, ended in divorce in 2006. Upheavals such as these, which surely merit more attention, are handled in a cursory, almost throwaway fashion. No-one is asking for a trashy, tabloid-style exposé, but Stephen Hawking is too important a figure to fudge the details and, while Ferguson’s book is not an authorised biography, it lacks teeth in that it is all too awed by its subject. “I thought I better ask him what to include,” the author said in regard to the abuse allegations against his ex-wife during a recent interview with National Public Radio in America.

“I said what I’m going to do is just mention that the matter came up, there was this controversy, there was this police investigation, but I’m not going to go farther than that. I’m not going to go out and interview people and find out the secrets behind it all.”

This compromise ensures that the value of Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work rests entirely on the sideways glimpses which it offers into the mind of the professor himself. A reckless motorist in his youth, he is now “notorious on at least two continents for his hell-raising wheelchair driving”. Coping well with his increasing fame and the impossibility of travelling anywhere without being besieged by fans, he nowadays programmes his voice synthesiser to tell people that “I am often mistaken for Stephen Hawking”.

He is a consummate showman, well known for controversial, attention-grabbing statements; he is an “agnostic bordering on atheism”, an admirer of Marilyn Monroe, and a contrarian cosmologist who often — though not always — turns out to be right. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s anecdotes are primarily surface details of the kind that readers with enough inclination could easily discover for themselves.

As such, this is unlikely to be the last word on Stephen Hawking, neither the student “whose enthusiasm for life was awakened by a tragedy that ought to have embittered and destroyed him”, the scientist whose meteoric rise “started with the practical need for a thesis topic so that he could get a job and marry”, nor the father whose writing of A Brief History of Time was motivated by the need to pay for his children’s schooling. Ferguson’s book is readable, but the man who has spent much of his life trying to unify relativity and quantum mechanics — let alone theoretical physics and popular culture — deserves a more comprehensive treatment than this.

  • Dr Val Nolan lectures on literature at NUI Galway. His publications include a contribution to the ‘Futures’ page of the journal Nature.

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, 17th March 2012, pp.16-17.

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