Revisiting the Unusual Celebrity of Stephen Hawking

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Though it is not an authorized biography, “Hawking Hawking” is deeply researched and richly sourced. It incorporates fresh interviews with many people who interacted closely with Hawking, including students, collaborators and intellectual rivals.

This is a book meant for general readers. It describes the cultural and the broad scientific context of Hawking’s work, and its reception, but it does not provide self-contained accounts of the work itself. If you want to learn what singularity theorems, Hawking radiation or the no-boundary proposal is all about, you will have to look elsewhere. Seife succeeds in serving up something of the flavor of those difficult and rather esoteric ideas, which are the heart of Hawking’s contribution to science, in a way that won’t give general readers indigestion. But it may leave you hungry for more. If so, so much the better, because even Wikipedia and Google will reward your motivated searches.

It’s worth noting Seife’s odd choice to narrate his story using reverse chronology. He begins thus with Hawking’s death and ends with his childhood. It’s an unusual but stimulating structure. Indeed, the phenomenon of a nearly “locked-in,” physically helpless and noncommunicative figure, having inspired the adulation of millions for his intellectual mastery over the universe, being interred next to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, is so extraordinary that unraveling step by step the question of “How did this happen?” might keep you turning the pages. But the time-reversed narrative is not well matched to how readers usually understand stories, nor to the logical evolution of ideas. I had to jump around quite a bit, and I imagine that people less familiar with the science could easily lose the thread.

In the popular imagination Hawking was a transcendent scientist and a pure spirit who courageously overcame profound physical disabilities while he also happened to become a publishing sensation and a performance icon, more or less as a trivial consequence. That image is recognizably based on a uniquely inspiring life of achievement, but, as Seife amply documents, it paints an idealized picture. Hawking did important work in two splendid but rather speculative, unworldly branches of theoretical physics, namely the mathematical theories (as opposed to the phenomenology) of black holes and of Big Bang cosmology. He most certainly did not pioneer a “Theory of Everything,” as was often reported, nor did practicing physicists hang onto his every pronouncement. He did his best work well before the worst of his physical deterioration, and his personal life was in parts problematic. “A Brief History of Time,” his runaway hit, is not a masterpiece of science or of exposition; and its production and promotion was a calculated team effort.

I got to know Hawking well during a weeklong conference on cosmology he organized (together with Gary Gibbons) in the summer of 1983. By this time his speech was unintelligible at first exposure, but with a bit of practice one got to understand it, and more-or-less normal conversations were possible. He and his first wife, Jane Wilde, were very gracious hosts to me and my wife, Betsy Devine, when we arrived with a baby and young child in tow. He was a good-humored and witty person. At one point, he enjoyed playing chess with Betsy while baby Mira methodically undid his shoelaces. We became family friends. The conference proved to be a milestone event, where the central ideas of inflationary cosmology came together and axion cosmology was born. Hawking participated actively in the scientific program, often making sharp observation and posing tough questions, besides putting forward his own version of inflation. In retrospect this conference, sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, may have marked Hawking’s high point as a practicing scientist. There he guided a new generation of physicists and cosmologists in directions that built on his earlier and ongoing work.