Stephen Hawking celebrated his 72d birthday this month, marking a little more than half a century since the British physicist was diagnosed with a degenerative motor neuron disease that doctors said would kill him in his 20s. As his body has deteriorated, Hawking has accomplished far more than most people: He has made fundamental discoveries about the universe, translated complex science to the general public, and become a pop culture icon. In a new autobiographical PBS documentary, “Hawking,” he departs from his usual topics — black holes and the beginning of the universe — to tell his own story.
The documentary is unflinching in its depiction of frailty; in the opening scene, a nurse points to a ventilator next to his bed and talks about how easily Hawking might slip away if there were a malfunction. He is spoon-fed champagne at a reception in his honor. These portrayals are far more intimate than Hawking as he is often seen — the genius in a wheelchair giving a guided tour of the universe from beginning to end. They have the strange effect of adding to one’s sense of the scientist’s great dignity. Hawking is a man who has dedicated his life to scientific discovery and communicating ideas, even as he has lost the ability to write, speak, and sketch his ideas on paper. He now communicates through cheek twitches detected by a sensor in his glasses.
In his familiar computerized voice, Hawking recounts his early years — from his boyhood love of train sets to his undisciplined college years, where he estimates he put in about an hour of work per day. Then, he tumbles down the stairs and can’t remember who he is. At 21, he is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Only with death hanging over him and in pursuit of his future wife does he decide to work hard — chasing the question of whether the universe had a beginning.
Much of the story featured in “Hawking” will be familiar to viewers who have seen Errol Morris’s skillful 1991 documentary, “A Brief History of Time.” In many ways, the new account feels like a less rich echo of that work, with a slightly different cast of supporting characters. That’s in part because this time, Hawking is telling his own story, one that has lately been lit by the world’s attention.
In Morris’s film, friends and colleagues talked about what would happen to a person who fell into a black hole; one man described it as an exciting way to die, with time flashing by too quickly to comprehend. The new documentary reviews his major scientific contributions, but features little in the way of that kind of nerdy awe. Instead, his agent recounts how great it was when Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time” catapulted to the top of bestseller lists in multiple countries. Hawking’s life is clearly in his mind, but the documentary sticks to the ways in which his illness has punctuated his life, along with guest appearances by people like astronaut Buzz Aldrin and comedian Jim Carrey.
This is well-deserved celebrity. Hawking’s perseverance and his ability to work within his mind even as he grew more isolated is inspiring. But in some way, the documentary misses the point: Hawking has indeed become well-known, making cameos on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Star Trek.” The one thing the world knows about the man is that he has overcome tremendous adversity. Given an hour to pull back the curtain, one might hope for a real sense of what it is like to be inside that agile, self-deprecating, witty, unusual mind that’s captured the world’s fascination. Instead, we get a pretty standard biography.
Hawking is certainly humanized. His ex-wife, Jane, provides a fascinating glimpse of the difficulty and joy of being married to a brilliant and increasingly trapped man. She recounts their honeymoon, to a conference at Cornell University, as her first indication that she’d share Hawking with another “goddess” — physics. He refers to the sensational period when there were allegations he was abused by his second wife as hurtful years.
But for a person who is keenly aware of the downside of fame — he worries that he is known as much for his illness as he is for his scientific discoveries — the storytelling falls short. With only cursory summaries of his work, his thoughts, the scientific disagreements he has gotten into, one still wonders: How has he managed all this? How does he work?
At one point, Hawking refers to the way his illness reshaped his thinking: “By losing the finer dexterity of my hands,” Hawking says, “I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind and try to visualize the ways in which it worked.”
That’s the documentary I want to see — the journey that only he could take us on.Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.