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Star among star gazers

Memoir>> My Brief History • by Stephen Hawking • Bantam • Rs 850

By Pratul Raturi
Published: Friday 31 January 2014

The trouble with being the world’s most celebrated scientist is that when you come to write your own memoir, much of it has been said before. Including trivia. For example, many books about Stephen Hawking point out that he was born exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo. In his memoir, My Brief History, Hawking repeats the line, but only in jest. He reckons that 200,000 other babies were born on January 8, 1942 and then quips, “I don’t know whether any of them was later interested in astronomy.”

imageMy Brief History covers Hawking’s early life in London and St Albans, his student years in Oxford and Cambridge, and the onset of motor neuron disease shortly after his 21st birthday. Hawking writes about his two marriages and his pioneering work in the field of quantum cosmology.

He writes that his parents lived among scientific and academic people. “In another country they would have been called intellectuals, but the English have never admitted to having any intellectuals.” He recalls that as a child, “I was always very interested in how things operated, and used to take them apart to see how they worked, but I was not so good at putting them back together again.”

Once a tutor made Hawking read the Bible, intending to open his student’s mind to the beauty of the English language. This ploy backfired when Hawking complained that many sentences started with “and”; they were against the principles of good English. The tutor replied that the language of the Bible was outdated. In that case, Hawking asked, why was he being made to read it?

imageReaders interested in how Hawking grappled with the motor neuron disease ALS, in his 20s, will be both riveted and disappointed. The 71-year-old Hawking, having beaten odds at surviving by more than half a century, doesn’t dwell much on what may have helped him cope with the crippling disease, except Herculean will power. When he learned of the diagnosis, Hawking was shocked. But that shock was tempered by the sight of a young acquaintance dying of leukemia in the opposite hospital bed. “There were people who were worse off than me,” Hawking writes. “Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself, I remember that boy.”

Early on in graduate school, his deteriorating physical condition steered Hawking away from experimental research, since he couldn’t do the necessary hands-on work. But concentration was not easy. Hawking dismisses stories that he drank heavily at that time. “They are exaggerated. Once one article said it, other articles copied it because it made a good story, and eventually everyone believed that,” he writes.

Gradually, he entered the theoretical realms to make seminal contribution. His disability removed the obligation to sit on boring faculty committees or to teach undergraduates, and allowed him to wholly focus on research. He thinks his disability is one of the secrets to his celebrity: “I fit the stereotype of a disabled genius. I can’t disguise myself with a wig and dark glasses—the wheelchair gives me away.”

The most striking revelation is about Hawking’s best seller, Brief History of Time. The book ends with the sentence: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we should know the mind of God.” Some scientists often invoke the Deity as a metaphor for the ordered workings of the universe and reviewers see this is an instance of Hawking’s theism. But Hawking is an atheist and has often pointed out that we can understand the universe without requiring a creator. He tells us that he nearly deleted this sentence but: “Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.”  

Pratul Raturi is a science writer

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