Mind of a scientist

When the most famous scientist of our time appears on TV nearly motionless in his wheelchair speaking in his trademark computerised voice, we sit up and watch. His writings too have a huge readership. Stephen Hawking’s memoir, My Brief History, is an extension of his popular lectures giving a concise, illuminating account of the Cambridge cosmologist.

Interspersed with hard science and anecdotes along with rare photographs, the brief volume offers glimpses of his personal life dogged by a debilitating illness. He takes the reader from his upbringing in post-war London as a school boy, through the days in Oxford and Cambridge, and the years of acclaim as an iconic cosmologist.

Son of a doctor, Hawking was not a brilliant student. As a child, he had a passion for model trains and was curious how machines worked. “My aim was always to build working models that I could control. It was an urge to know how systems worked and how to control them,” he writes. He was interested in how things operated and he used to take them apart to see how they worked but was not skilled with his hands when reassembling the machines he dismantled. 

At the age of 21, he was diagnosed with a rare motor neuron disease, which steadily deteriorated. Some doctors gave him only a few years to live. Though initially shocked, he got over the despondency. “Clearly there were people who were worse off than me — at least my condition didn’t make me feel sick,” Hawking writes. Being confined to a wheelchair and communicating through a speech generating device meant no handicap to him. He states: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living and that there are lots of things you want to do. My disability has not been a serious handicap in my scientific work. In some ways, it has been an asset. I was able to devote myself completely to research.” 

The deteriorating physical condition barred him from experimental research and forced him to enter the theoretical realms where he excelled. He considers it one of the secrets to his fame: “I fit the stereotype of a disabled genius. I can’t disguise myself with a wig and dark glasses — the wheelchair gives me away.”

One who is wary of the media taking an unhealthy interest in his personal life, Hawking is stingy with facts while describing his two marriages and the strain that his debilitating illness created on the relationships. After 25 years of wedlock with Jane, he walks out with one of his nurses to marry her and divorce. He writes: “My marriage to Elaine was passionate and tempestuous,” and that Elaine being a nurse saved his life several times. Apart from the occasional references, he doesn’t throw much light on the persona of the two women.

He devotes a chapter on his monumental work A Brief History of Time, a work on the beginning of time and the evolution of the universe, that became a cult book and sold over 10 million copies. He says, “I wanted to explain how far I felt we had come in our understanding of the universe.” 

For the first time, Hawking looks inward at his own life, at times unorthodox, and intellectual evolution. Here are the five lessons he offers on how to become a genius: Don’t work too hard at school, don’t miss opportunities by being too cool, keep it simple, have fun and always look for the silver lining. A quick read, the 13 chapters of My Brief History, while focusing on his academic achievements add to our understanding of black holes, quantum mechanics and relativity with detailed sections. There is also a chapter on the possibility of time travel. His style is matter of fact, terse, peppered with dry humour.

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