Book Review: Stephen Hawking’s My Brief History
Book Review: Stephen Hawking’s My Brief History
(Bantam Books, 2013, first edition, 9th printing).
Written in a breezy prose style and at 127 pages, My Brief History fulfilled its promise of brevity. Amazon ranks it 3,884 in books overall and ninth for biographical writings about the lives of scientists, just after other autobiographical works by Richard Dawkins and Richard P. Feynman, and biographers, Walter Isaacson, Mario Livio, and Randy Pausch. By comparison, the hardcover A Brief History of Time, which was a legendary #1 New York Times and London Sunday Times bestselling book (1998, Bantam Dell), presently ranks 1,913 in books on Amazon.
The autobiography revealed a great deal about Hawking, the man. Most notably, it took Hawking out of a wheelchair and showed us a vibrant, active, and youthful man. For a student of science he was unusually athletic, coxing for the University College’s Boat Club and participating in “bumps.” These are highly competitive boat rowing races between colleges, which involve bumping the boat ahead, rather than surpassing them, due to the narrowness of the river. College bumps are not nearly as visible and famous as the university-level, annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, but they do attract a good deal of student attention and inspire college loyalty and friendships. The featured image on the cover of the book, titled “The Boat Club at play,” is of Hawking leaping into the air holding a white kerchief. Similarly, we see Hawking, once again defying gravity much later in life, in the last photo of the book where he is floating in “Zero-G” aboard NASA’s “Vomit Comet.”
Hawking’s autobiography genuinely burst to life with 47 archival images, including candid family portraits with his parents and his two sisters, Philippa and Mary, affirming a happy childhood. (A photo of his adopted brother, Edward, is absent). Some of the photos exposed colorful, non-centrist, and controversial aspects of the lives and political beliefs of his parents, Frank and Isobel. A photo of one of his father trips to the Congo to study tropical medicine — a somewhat hazardous undertaking considering what might happen to the family should he succumb to disease, accident, or worse — was indicative of how Hawking perceived Frank as a somewhat absent husband and father. This fact was emphasized by another photograph of a trip during his childhood to fascist Spain with his mother, who “didn't like being left alone all that time,” so she had decided to visit one of her female friends. Hawking did not elaborate on this friendship, which seemed an unusual alliance and trip, given that he revealed Isobel “had been a member of the Young Communist League before the war” (19). In this sense, the book portrayed his mother as being dissatisfied with a Parliamentary Monarchy, exploring alternatives by exposing herself to both fascist and communist ideologies and practices. The Hawking family was not always quiet about its eclecticism that the members expressed by merely leaving the country. On at least one occasion, they quite publicly bucked conservative English social tradition by buying a wooden “Gypsy caravan” reminiscent of a covered wagon for the holidays; that is until it apparently became something of an eyesore and public nuisance and “the county council finally managed to remove” it (17-19). Hawking admitted that he was, like most kids, “embarrassed by his parents" (17), but he appeared to take the whole thing in stride. The photos of Stephen’s first wife, Jane, whom he married in 1965, and their children — from eldest to youngest: Robert, Lucy, and Tim — unveiled tender, celebratory moments depicting nearly 25 years of a happy marriage and a joyful home life. The photos, however, masked brewing marital tensions that followed a life-threatening event related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as “ALS” or “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Hawking said his declining health led to his wife’s affair. He laid bare the circumstances in more detail than expected on pages 84-88, explaining their eventual physical separation in 1990. Elaine Mason then became his live-in nurse. Five years after his divorce from Jane, as shown by scene from a 1995 wedding party photo, Elaine became his second wife. One of Hawking’s few retrospective characterizations of this marriage was that it was both “passionate and tempestuous.” He also retains a sense of indebtedness to her because she “saved his life on many occasions,” especially when she convinced him to have a surgery, one that he later realized would have otherwise meant certain death. His second marriage lasted for 12 years, until 2007, and he says he has since remained single. A complete list of image credits are on page 127.
The narrative story revealed much about Hawking’s early life and education. First, we learned that disability was not new to his family. His mother, who was Scottish and the daughter of a physician, had an older sister afflicted with Down’s syndrome, a heritable disease. The experience probably imbued her with an understanding of the patience and dignity required in the process of care giving with the differently abled. While there are some instances in studies showing the heritability of ALS, the actual cause of the motor neural disease remains unknown. His father, who was academically and professionally trained in medicine, was aptly suited to raise a child who developed a medical condition. In short, Hawking could not have been born to a family that would be more capable to provide him with the love, empathy, dignity, and emotional support to pursue his dreams and become the scientist he is today. Despite being poor, Hawking recounts, both his maternal and paternal grandparents valued education above all else and made sacrifices for Hawking’s mother and his father to attend Oxford, where they met, married, and had their eldest child, Stephen. So too did Frank and Isobel make sacrifices, when they sent their son Stephen to Oxford and Cambridge and their daughter Mary to university to become a medical doctor (6). For example, his father refused to spend money on “central heating” and instead wore “several sweaters and a dressing gown on top of his normal clothes” (17). Despite his parents struggle to save money, Hawking’s financial ability to attend university and graduate school was mainly possible due to winning a scholarship to Oxford and a research fellowship to Cambridge. His intelligence earned him a nickname, “Einstein,” by his classmates (24).
Official Trailer for The Theory of Everything
(Video credit: Universal Pictures UK).
As a fellow Cantabrigian, I found the chapters on Cambridge life to be quite relatable and I feel most alumni would enjoy reading the book for the same reason. For example, I could relate to Hawking’s laments over the housing situation, having seen many of my fellow students scrambling at the beginning of term to find adequate housing (though I thankfully had all that secured ahead of time). He explained, “I asked the college for help but was told by the bursar that it was not college policy to help fellows with housing” (52). After reading it, I think most students might feel some sense of relief that housing problems are simply a matter of due course, no matter what your status — student or fellow. Living in Cambridge is, of course, expensive. Hawking’s recollection about his attempt to get temporary housing from the College’s bursar for his wife and himself provided a humorous example of Cambridge rent gouging. “[The bursar] said, ‘We normally charge twelve shillings and sixpence a night for this room. However, as there will be two of you in the room, we will charge twenty-five shillings.’ We stayed there only three nights” (52). Hawking also noted, as I had, the somewhat surprising number of properties actually owned by colleges that do not seem at first glance to be part of the college system at all (52). This is because the university academic buildings and housing colleges are intertwined throughout the entire city, unlike any other university I've seen. The choice of supervisor also remains problematic to this day, as everyone seems to want to work with the professor with the best reputation in the department, and these faculty can only take on so many PhD students to supervise. Ironic, but true, Hawking was not accepted by his first choice of supervisor. “I had applied to work with Fred Hoyle, the most famous British astronomer of the time,” wrote Hawking. “However, Hoyle had enough students already, so to my great disappointment, I was assigned” to someone “of whom I had not heard” (41). Hawking even went so far as to say he “had been cheated out of working with Hoyle” (44). Hawking, however, got his revenge in his third year. He relayed the following devious tale of trickery:
Hawking shared an office with Jayant Narlikar, one of the graduate students who was picked to study under Hoyle, the same individual for which the Hoyle-Narlikar theory of gravity is named. Hawking explained how he gained access to the draft of this now-famous paper, which supported the steady state model of the universe, ahead of Hoyle’s first presentation of the paper at the 1964 meeting of the Royal Society and its subsequent publication in November of that year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences: Seeing a “draft of the paper,” said Hawking, “allowed me to do the calculations ahead of time.” This enabled Hawking to challenge Hoyle publicly, or at least appear to know as much or more than the great Hoyle in front of the Royal Society. “I was at the lecture,” he said, “and in the question period I said that the influence of all the matter in a steady-state universe would make his masses infinite. Hoyle asked why I said that, and I replied that I had calculated it. Everyone thought I meant that I had done it in my head during the lecture … Hoyle was furious.” In the end, Hawking got his way, because he gloated, “Hoyle later gave me a job” (44-46).
In addition to allowing the reader to learn about Hawking as a family man, the book conveyed some surprising stories, like the one just mentioned, about his professional studies and career as a cosmologist. Hawking also used his autobiography to correct some misconceptions. He revealed examples of how he felt certain incidences in his life, and his overall public image, had been distorted by the media. The first was about being stereotyped by some as a “disabled genius,” when in fact, “To my colleagues I’m just another physicist” (122). Related to this is the second misconception, that is, a controversy surrounding his computerized voice. The voice, Hawking said, is important to overcome the fact that some people inappropriately correlate the inability to speak or slurred speech with diminished mental capacity, thereby wrongly associating a physical disability with a mental one:
One’s voice is very important. If you have a slurred voice, people are likely to treat you as mentally deficient. This synthesizer was by far the best I had heard because it varies the intonation and didn’t speak like one of the Daleks from Doctor Who. Speech Plus has since gone into liquidation and its speech synthesizer program has been lost. I now have the last three remaining synthesizers. They are bulky, use a lot of power, and contain chips that are obsolete and can’t be replaced. Nevertheless, by now I identify with the voice and it has become my trademark, so I won’t change it for a more natural-sounding voice unless all three synthesizers break (86-87).
In short, as a lecturer and author, one’s voice as one’s looks and mannerisms become part of that individual’s marketing and image. But what is more important than being a public figure as a disabled scientist, Hawking explained, was that to a non-academic readership, is that as a scholar his voice and his work must hold up to rigorous evaluation by his fellow colleagues and journal peer reviewers. “Using this system,” he said, “I have written seven books and a number of scientific papers. I have also given a number of scientific and popular talks. I think this is due in large part to the quality of the speech synthesizer, made by Speech Plus” (86).
Lastly, the chapter “A Brief History of Time” was exactly what it sounded like, the opportunity to comment upon all of the critiques by others about his most famous book as well as where he personally felt the book could have been improved. “With hindsight,” he wrote, “I now feel that I should have put more effort into explaining these two very difficult concepts, [the sum over histories, and] particularly “imaginary time, which seems to be the thing in the book with which people have the most trouble” (96). While written for the non-scientist, Hawking's autobiography touched upon scientific concepts, particularly in the two chapters following “A Brief History of Time,” titled “Time Travel” and “Imaginary Time.” He wrote these chapters to clarify and elaborate upon the book, A Brief History of Time. Therefore, they may present ideas that are foreign to anyone who has not read it, as well as to young adult readers, or adult readers who have not studied cosmology or physics. The treatment of these subjects was simplified, but these two chapters might still be confusing. Hawking also redressed critiques about the choice of the cover photo, over which he said he had no control (98-99). What appeared to be an incongruity between the cover of A Brief History of Time and its content caused some readers to feel misled into thinking there would be more discussion about ALS. Since that was not the purpose of the book, these readers felt disappointed. Similarly, My Brief History is not My Struggle Against ALS. It is an autobiography depicting the life of a scientist.
Hawking continues to work as the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) within the University of Cambridge and he has plans to become an astronaut while flying aboard a commercial spacecraft with Virgin Galactic.
This post was updated on 14 January 2015 with an updated link to the video.