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The Notes of Avinash Patra, Sr.

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My Brief History: a memoir by Stephen Hawking

By Avinash Patra, Sr. |  April, 4 2015

The theoretical physicists book “A Brief History of Time” has sold more than 10 million copies, making its wheelchair-bound author a global science superstar. How did the universe begin? Is it expanding? Is time travel possible? Hawking continues to ask and seek answers to these and other big cosmological questions. What Hawking has rarely done, however, and does now with “My Brief History,” is turn his gaze from the cosmos to himself, offering readers a glimpse into his private life.

It’s clear, though, that Hawking is more comfortable looking up at the universe than into himself, more concerned with detailing the evolution of a career than the twists and turns of a life, though he does reveal some interesting details about his beginnings as a scientist. In clean, direct prose, Hawking leads us from his birth in Oxford in 1942 to the present.

Hawking was the oldest of four children of Frank and Isobel Hawking. Frank was a physician and medical researcher and Isobel the daughter of a family doctor. Both were Oxford graduates.

He describes a boyhood love of trains and games, explaining this love as his first encounter with complex systems and triggering a lifelong “urge to know how systems worked and how to control them.”

Because his family was “not well off,’’ Hawking writes that he knew he would need a scholarship if he was to attend his parents’ alma mater. And while he portrays himself as a good but not stellar student, he managed at 17 to win a scholarship to Oxford.

Surprisingly, Hawking admits he didn’t work hard as an undergraduate, estimating that he’d studied “an average of an hour a day” and “affected an air of complete boredom and the feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for.” Despite his confessions of sloth, Hawking managed to do well enough that, after completing his undergraduate degree, he began doctoral studies at Cambridge University.

At 21 after some struggles with his health, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a debilitating and fatal motor-neuron illness often called “Lou Gehrig’s disease’’ — and this changed his outlook deeply: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are lots of things you want to do.”

Hawking went about doing many great things, though this memoir describes the multiple occasions when he nearly died, how he lost his voice, and how he learned to speak and write using special equipment. For Hawking, writing has always been slow, about two or three words per minute, because he uses a system controlled “by a small sensor on my glasses that responds to my cheek movement.” In one illuminating chapter, Hawking describes his goals and methods for writing his classic “A Brief History of Time”: “I wanted it to be the sort of book that would sell in airport bookstores,” while also giving a clear explanation of the science. The book has succeeded brilliantly on both counts.

Hawking is certainly adept at explaining complex ideas in an understandable way. He also wields a lighthearted wit to leaven his prose, as when he argues for the improbability of time travel by saying “if it were [possible], we would have been overrun by tourists from the future by now.” On another occasion, when Hawking described the honor of holding the same academic chair (the Lucasian chair) at Cambridge that Sir Isaac Newton once held, Hawking joked that Newton’s chair, however, “wasn’t electrically operated” like his.

As for his private life, his two marriages — swirling around them rumors of infidelity by Hawking and his wives and of physical abuse of the disabled scientist — and his globe-trotting experiences as a celebrity, the understated Hawking reveals very little. He admits that his failing health and celebrity status didn’t help his relationships, but offers few details or insights.

In the end, Hawking comes across as an understated, hard-working, and likable physicist committed to understanding and explaining the cosmos. Fans will find much here to like. He ends in a typical tone of Hawking-esque humility: “When I was twenty-one and contracted ALS . . . I thought my life was over and that I would never realize the potential I felt I had. But now, fifty years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life.”

Hawking's memoir, My Brief History, is a skip across the surface of the Cambridge cosmologist's life, from his quirky upbringing in London and St Albans to his latest work on the beginning of time and the evolution of the universe. The details are sketched, but the brevity makes for a bold picture. Hawking's intellectual activity soars as his illness takes hold and eventually puts an intolerable burden on his marriages.

Books about Hawking are apt to point out that he was born exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo, as if the fact might help us comprehend the origins of his genius. Hawking repeats the line but only for his amusement. He estimates that 200,000 other babies were born on 8 January 1942. "I don't know whether any of them was later interested in astronomy."

Hawking's family lived in a tall Victorian house his parents had bought cheap during the war, when everyone thought London would be bombed flat. His mother worked as a tax inspector and then as a secretary, which was how she met his father. An Oxford-trained doctor, he specialised in tropical diseases, and kept infected mosquitoes at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill. The son of a poor Yorkshire farmer, he was cautious with money. Instead of installing heating when the family moved to St Albans, he wore several jumpers and a dressing gown on top of his normal clothes.

The young Hawking had a passion for model trains, and it was through toys and the complicated games he invented – one war game was played on a board of 4,000 squares – that he satisfied his urge to understand how complex systems worked. In later life this urge was met by his work in cosmology. "If you understand how the universe operates," he writes, "you control it, in a way."

Hawking did not excel at school in St Albans. He was never more than halfway up the class, and his teachers were dismayed at his untidy coursework. When he was 12 years old a friend of his bet another friend a bag of sweets that he would never amount to much. Hawking is (rather needlessly) self-deprecating here, offering: "I don't know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided."

From St Albans, Hawking went to Oxford University, where the prevailing attitude was anti-work. The students affected an air of boredom – nothing was worth making an effort for. Hawking calculates he put in 1,000 hours over three years, an average of only an hour a day.

It was in his last year at Oxford that the illness that came to shape Hawking's life began to make itself known. He became clumsy. After falling down some stairs, he went to see the doctor, who told him to lay off the beer.

After scraping a first-class degree, Hawking left Oxford to pursue a PhD at Cambridge. His clumsiness worsened and soon after his 21st birthday, he went to hospital for tests. The doctors took muscle samples and injected his spine with a radio-opaque fluid and watched it go up and down as they tilted his bed. They didn't say what he had (motor neuron disease), only that it wasn't multiple sclerosis. But Hawking was left in no doubt that his condition would worsen and there was nothing the doctors could do.

He was in shock. He started listening to Wagner. He lost all motivation to finish his PhD. But the gloom did not last. While Hawking was in hospital, a boy he vaguely knew in a bed opposite died of leukaemia. "Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself, I remember that boy," he writes.

To Hawking's surprise he started to enjoy life more. He got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde. If he was to marry, he needed a job, and to get a job, he needed to finish his PhD. He started to work properly for the first time in his life.

What followed was a remarkable trajectory. He helped demolish the steady-state theory of the universe, which claimed that the expanding cosmos was forever being filled with fresh matter. He found that black holes were not so black, and instead could emit radiation. He developed the concept of "imaginary time", and argued it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began: to ask what happened before the beginning of the universe is as meaningless as asking what is south of the South Pole. This is not a book to learn Hawking's science from, but it is an introduction to the cosmos he unveiled.

In the slender chapter on marriage, the brevity of My Brief History is more brutal. Hawking describes Jane asking the local church organist to move in, with a view to marrying him after Hawking died. "I would have objected, but I too was expecting an early death and felt I needed someone to support the children after I was gone," he writes. "In the end, I could stand it no more." Both that marriage, and the second to his nurse, Elaine Mason (a "passionate and tempestuous" relationship) failed under the appalling pressure of his illness.

The trouble with being the world's most famous scientist is that when you come to write your memoir, much of it has been said before. My Brief History reads like a farewell letter from a man who, faced with the prospect of an early death, made so much of his life.