Book Review: A Humanizing Portrait of Stephen Hawking
In “Hawking Hawking,” Charles Seife explores the life of the celebrated physicist, and his love of the limelight. Review by Dan Falk via Undark.
June 4, 2021 by Dan Falk
Scientists become celebrities so rarely that the 20th century produced only a handful of such figures, with Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking topping the list. Einstein was renowned for a string of vital contributions to physics in the early decades of the century. Hawking, who lived from 1942 to 2018, may not have been Einstein’s equal, but he was often pegged as the natural inheritor of the Einsteinian mantle, given that his most important work — on the nature of gravity, on black holes, and on the origins of the universe — directly tackled problems that were raised by Einstein’s work a half century earlier.
But as Charles Seife’s new biography makes clear, there was something else that these two figures shared. Hawking, like Einstein, lived a double or even triple existence: There was Hawking the scientist, Hawking the man, and — more familiar to most of us today — Hawking the bestselling author and media darling, famous as much for his appearances on "Star Trek" and "The Simpsons" as for his contributions to physics. In "Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity," Seife, a veteran science writer and professor of journalism at New York University, shows how these disparate entities merged to make the “real” Stephen Hawking.
Seife’s title is perhaps a bit misleading, as it suggests a conspiracy of marketing executives manipulating an unwitting scientist for their own purposes. In fact, as Seife explains, Hawking was very keen on becoming a public figure. He loved the idea of communicating his work not merely to his colleagues but to the widest possible audience (an idea he might have gotten from his father, Frank, a physician who had written a couple of articles for Scientific American). And he loved being the center of attention.
But there is an additional twist — one that Einstein never had to face. Living with a progressive neurological disease for nearly all of his adult life, Hawking couldn’t help being an object of fascination for journalists and for the public, a figure whose illness always threatened to eclipse his scientific achievements. There was no way to write about him without mentioning the toll that ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in England as motor neurone disease) had taken on his body. In the final years of his life, he lost virtually all motor control, communicating with the outside world only by means of a few muscles in his cheek, which in turn controlled a voice synthesizer. Those who wrote about him, to much of the disabled community’s dismay, were perpetually tempted to contrast Hawking’s soaring mind with his withered, Earth-bound body.
Often, that temptation was too great to resist. Eleven years before his bestselling book "A Brief History of Time" hit the bookstores in 1988, Hawking appeared in a BBC television special called "The Key to the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Creation," outlining the latest developments in particle physics. In the documentary, the narrator — using language that would be flagged as problematic today — says of Hawking: “Although the gentle gravity of the planet Earth confines him to a wheelchair, in his mind, he masters the overwhelming gravity of the black hole.” Seife observes: “The metaphor of Hawking was almost too perfect. The physics he so loved was always at risk of being obscured by his personal story. Yet he couldn’t ignore the media because he desperately wanted to bring his science to a popular audience, and he was beginning to figure out how.”
This tug-of-war over Hawking’s condition — acknowledge it as central to his identity, or declare it to be unimportant next to his science? — was evident even a decade after "A Brief History" made its debut. A 1998 article in New York magazine blasted Hawking’s publisher, Bantam, for depicting Hawking in his wheelchair on the book’s cover. The publisher knew that the only way a book about physics could conceivably become a bestseller “was to exploit the illness of Stephen Hawking to promote his book — in a way that is at best irrelevant and at worst shameful,” the article stated. As Seife notes: “This went straight to the core of Hawking’s identity, of his struggle to make his mark as a physicist, as a communicator, as a human being despite his disability rather than because of it.”
Hawking, for his part, said that he wasn’t involved with the book’s cover design, and denied the accusations of exploitation. (Seife quotes Peter Guzzardi, the editor of "A Brief History," as saying that Hawking was pleased with the choice of cover.) Ultimately, Hawking had to accept that the public was just as interested (and likely more interested) in his personal struggle as his contributions to physics. Knowing that this was his reality, he adapted to it. As someone who worked to promote awareness of ALS and fought for the rights of the disabled, Hawking could hardly pretend that it wasn’t a central part of his existence. And yet, some of the mythology that surrounded Hawking was just that. As Seife notes toward the end of the book, the persistence and good humor that Hawking displayed, even as his condition worsened, was inspiring — “but to Hawking, that was hardly any sort of triumph; it was merely survival.”
Moreover, Hawking’s illness did not steer him toward his chosen field; he was destined for a “life of the mind,” as it were, from the beginning. As Seife puts it: “Hawking didn’t retreat into his mind as a result of the disease. Since childhood, Hawking had been cerebral to the extreme. Even when it wasn’t clear whether he would fail out of school, the core of Hawking’s identity, of his self-worth, was the superiority of his brain. It was what he always wanted to be known for.”
Not everything in "Hawking Hawking" is new — after all, Hawking’s own autobiography has been available since 2013 ("My Brief History"), and his first wife, Jane (born Jane Wilde) wrote about her life with the famous physicist in "Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen" in 1999, updated in 2007 as "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen," and later adapted into the popular movie "The Theory of Everything."
The problem is that Stephen’s and Jane’s accounts often differ — and Seife does an admirable job of deducing which is more accurate on which occasions. And while this is an “unauthorized” biography — Seife does not appear to have had access to Jane or to Hawking’s children — he does not lack for sources; the book is informed by candid interviews with Hawking’s former students, his fellow scientists, and his friends. (There are perhaps more details about Hawking’s sex life than a typical reader might want — or not enough, depending on the reader.)
Seife deftly weaves the physics into the overall story. He doesn’t skimp on the science, explaining very clearly what Hawking figured out about the early universe and black holes, and why those discoveries matter. (Those who struggled with Hawking’s discussion of “imaginary time” in "A Brief History" will benefit from Seife’s lucid explanation here.) Hawking’s greatest breakthrough — showing that black holes are not eternal, but evaporate over mind-bogglingly long periods of time — is a finding so shocking that the physics community is still grappling with its implications.
Was Hawking’s genius overrated? Seife notes that Hawking’s most important work came early in his career; during the final third of his life “his actual scientific contributions were more or less irrelevant to his fame”; much of the work in the latter part of his career has been “largely discounted” and made “little impact on the world of physics.” Even so, Seife on several occasions describes Hawking as a physicist “of the first rank.” (He may not have been an Einstein, but so what? We already had one of those.)
Perhaps Seife’s boldest conceit — some readers might call it an unnecessary gimmick — is to tell the story in reverse. We start with Hawking’s death and burial in Westminster Abbey, and work back through Hawking’s rise to superstardom, his two marriages, his life as a brilliant but bored student, and on to his childhood. As we make our way through the book, Hawking becomes progressively more able-bodied. It worked in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and while it inevitably leads to occasional repetition, it more or less works here.
The vast majority of scientists, of course, never get biographies written about them at all. A few, like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, produce a vast literature. And in the middle we have Stephen Hawking, who was born 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo, and who happened to die exactly 139 years after the birth of Einstein. In a hundred years, when Hawking will have receded into history like those other figures, perhaps interest in the minutiae of his life will have faded away. But for now, while he lives on vividly in our memories, we yearn to peer behind the curtain, and "Hawking Hawking" allows us to do just that.