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Black holes and revelations: Stephen Hawking memoir

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Stephen Hawking: My brief history

Stephen Hawking’s memoir is a brief amble through his life from early childhood to date. Hawking’s memoir does cut through some of the hype that could surround someone who is “possibly the best-known scientist in the world.” At the same time he presents many of his remembrances with a quaint gentle sort of humor, that at the same time reminds you that this is no ordinary human. Two of my favorites are:

I was born on January 8, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. I estimate, however that about two hundred thousand other babies were also born that day. I don’t know whether any of them was later interested in astronomy.

The first scientific description of time was given in 1689 by Sir Isaac Newton, who held the Lucasian chair at Cambridge that I used to occupy (though it wasn’t electrically operated in his time).

The memoir for me reflected almost two personalities. The first an almost languid bored life; that becomes more focused at the age of twenty-one when Hawking is told that he has motor-nurone disease and may only live a few more years.

Even as a child Hawking does not seem to demonstrate (at least not in the memoir) the genius that we now associate his name with. As an undergraduate at Oxford he claims to have worked about a thousand hours in the three years, an average of an hour a day. Affecting the air of complete boredom of the time and ascribing to the prevailing attitude at Oxford that was very anti-work.

You were supposed to be either brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree.

Stephen Hawking

The thought of an early death, a cloud hanging over his future were changed moving to graduate studies at Cambridge and there meeting and getting engaged to Jane Wilde. From this point on the memoir gather intellectual pace. Hawking takes us through being awarded a research Fellowship at Caius College, finishing his PhD, getting married, and his early work on gravity waves, the big bang and black holes.

The latter half of the book can seem cursory, focusing on Hawking’s work at Caltech and then back at Cambridge. During this period he had two more children and then eventually split with his first wife Jane, and marrying Elaine Mason his nurse. These personal stories were adequately covered – requiring none of the histrionic embellishments as you might find in a ‘celebrity’ autobiography. Hawking’s work stands as a singularly intellectual triumph.

This book is also fortunately light on obsessive detail that sometimes clouds the historical biography. Instead we have an enjoyable insightful memoir, accessible to all, of one of the most brilliant minds in modern times. I recommend it to all science buffs and those interested in those who have made a personal difference on a cosmological difference in our time.

Stephen Hawking, My Brief History: a memoir, (2013) Bantam Press, Sydney, ISBN 9780593072523.

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One Comment

  1. Comment by Warren:

    Perfect review Kevin. Many biographies provide you with an almost statistical knowledge of the individual leaving you no closer to knowing what it would be like to know them. That’s perfectly fine in many instances but this is the reverse. Given the complexity of his work this reads like a breath of fresh air.

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