Monday, October 21, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“MY BRIEF HISTORY – A Memoir” by Stephen Hawking (Bantam Press / Random House, $NZ 34:99)

Books are written for different reasons and different audiences and there’s no point in criticising a book in one genre for not being in another. Or to put it another way – Stephen Hawking’s mini-autobiography can’t be judged in the same way as full-length adult biographies or autobiographies are judged. Once you subtract from the 126 pages of text all the photographs and publisher’s bulking-up, you are left with fewer than 100 small pages of widely-spaced type. This is about the length of one of those longer articles that sometimes appear in the New Yorker. It makes for  - at most – a couple of hours reading. To add another mildly bitchy point, I wonder if the title My Brief History wasn’t as much the publisher’s suggestion as the author’s? After all, Hawking’s international mega-bestseller was A Brief History of Time, and the promise of having brainy ideas revealed concisely was obviously one of its main selling points.

Now for the other obvious point that I’ll have to make before somebody rebukes me. Stephen Hawking is probably the world’s most famous disabled person, rendered virtually immobile by motor neurone disease (what Americans call Lou Gehrig’s disease). Writing, via secretaries and a computer system, is obviously a very difficult business for him, so it is not unexpected that he prefers to express himself very concisely, often with little nuance.

So here is his own version of his life story.  Born in 1942, of middle class parents (his father was a doctor) who both managed to make it to Oxford, little Stephen had two younger sisters and one adopted younger brother. His family had some arty connections. His mother was friends with the wife of the poet Robert Graves, so sometimes the Hawking kids holidayed with Graves’ family in Majorca. The Hawkings were intellectuals, but a little bohemian. Dad bought a Gypsy caravan for family holidays.

Young Stephen wasn’t brilliant at elementary school. He tells us that (thanks in part to going at first to an “experimental” school where nothing much was actually taught) he couldn’t read until he was 8, whereas his little sister (who eventually became a doctor) could read at the age of 4. He notes self-deprecatingly:

I was never more than about halfway up the class. (It was a very bright class.) My classwork was very untidy and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never amount to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided.” (pp.24-25)

As a small child he loved model railways and building model aeroplanes more than anything else, because:

I was always interested in how things operated, and I used to take them apart to see how they worked, but I was not so good at putting them back together again. My practical abilities never matched up to my theoretical enquiries.” (p.26)

His father tried to steer him into an interest in medicine and had some say in the subjects he took at school. Consequently, he didn’t get the strong grounding in Mathematics that he would have liked. As he remarks, when he first tutored Mathematics at Cambridge, he sometimes kept up by reading essential texts one week ahead of his students. Fairly ironic for somebody who was later (for thirty years) Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Hawking got to Oxford at the age of 17. Despite being cox in a rowing club, he seems not to have much liked the ethos of the place in the 1950s and early 1960s. As he writes:

The prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to be either brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a ‘grey man’, the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary.” (p.33 and p.36)

He got a First but did his postgrad at Cambridge, with which he has been associated ever since. His real interests were always cosmology and elementary particle analysis, for which mathematics and physics were simply the doorway. He wanted to study under Professor Fred Hoyle, who was known for championing the “steady state” theory of the universe. Instead, he was placed under another don. This, he implies, might have been a blessing in disguise. The discovery in 1965 of the background noises of microwave radiation put what Hawking calls “the nail in the coffin” of Hoyle’s theories, and confirmed the idea of the expanding universe. Hawking might have wasted years trying to confirm Hoyle’s theories. In one anecdote, he implies that Hoyle could be cantankerous, as when Hoyle blew his stack at young Hawking for questioning his mathematics at a conference.

The big crisis in Hawking’s life came when he was 21. Becoming unsteady on his feet, he saw a doctor who brusquely advised him to “Lay off the beer”. Instead, specialists confirmed he had motor-neurone disease. Hawking says that this galvanised him into working harder, because he was advised that his life might be short. (He is now 71). At about the same time he was diagnosed, he met and married Jane Wilde, with whom he had three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim. He acknowledges that Jane did nearly all the toil of childcare and looking after him physically.

In moving through the fifty years of his career since he was diagnosed, Hawking concentrates on his work, achievements and scientific interests. He devotes a chapter to how A Brief History of Time was conceived and put together. His longest single chapter (twelve pages of it) gives the theoretical and physical basis for believing that time travel is not possible. He discusses his work on black holes.

The black hole that is in this book itself, however, is the absence of any revealing detail on his private life. It is Hawking’s right to present his life as he sees fit, but there is still a grave gap when the break-up of his first marriage is covered in one sentence (p.87). His second wife Elaine, to whom he was married for twelve years, disappears after three pages. He comments that his physical condition worsened, necessitating a number of medical interventions and “all these crises took their emotional toll on Elaine. We got divorced in 2007, and since the divorce I have lived alone with a housekeeper.” (p.91) There is no mention of, and certainly no attempt to respond to, Jane Wilde’s account of their marriage Music to Move the Stars, which suggested that part of her role was to prevent Stephen Hawking from thinking that he was God.

How do I sum up this “brief life”? Inevitably, like most autobiographies, it is in part an act of self-congratulation. Hawking has the habit of backing into mentioning his highest awards, so that we may conceive of him as the genius who is above being concerned with such things. Thus he says:

I used to have a bumper sticker that read BLACK HOLES ARE OUT OF SIGHT on the door of my office in [the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics]. This so irritated the head of the department that he engineered my election to the Lucasian Professorship, moved me to a better office on the strength of it, and personally tore the offending notice off the door of the old office.” (p.69)

But he still finds it necessary to tell us twice that the Lucasian Professorship is the same chair that Isaac Newton once occupied. Later, there is a smidgeon of annoyance that he hasn’t earned a higher award:

I think most theoretical physicists would agree that my prediction of quantum emission from black holes is correct, though it has not so far earned me a Nobel Prize because it is very difficult to verify experimentally. On the other hand , I won the even more valuable Fundamental Physics Prize, awarded for the theoretical significance of the discovery despite the fact that it has not been confirmed by experiment.” (p.122)

At the same time, there are some pithy argument-closing statements. I think only Hawking would be allowed to say in print that “it is almost impossible to be rigorous in quantum physics, because the whole field is on very shaky mathematical ground.” (p.65). I also liked the way he closed his time-travel chapter with the down-to-earth observation that “even if some different theory is discovered in the future, I don’t think time travel will ever be possible. If it were, we would have been overrun by tourists from the future by now.” (p.113)

So who is the ideal audience for this book? I pick it as a nice gift-book for intelligent teenagers, and for people who want to keep things simple. It’s a good two hours diversion. I’m sure it reflects accurately Hawking’ self-image, and that is well worth knowing about.

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