Stephen Hawking has spent his career explaining the wonders and complexities of the cosmos to non-scientists. The theoretical physicist’s 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.”
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast