Not God

David Lindley

  • Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science by Michael White and John Gribbin
    Viking, 304 pp, £16.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 670 84013 0

Stephen Hawking is now 50 years old, and has lived 25 years longer than he once expected to live. As a scientist he long ago earned the respect of his colleagues; more recently, with the astonishing success of his book A Brief History of Time, he has become a widely recognised public figure. Immobile for decades, he is now unable to communicate except by means of an electronic voice-synthesiser connected to a word-processor. He suffers from what is variously known as motor neurone disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but despite his confinement has moved into the vanguard of theoretical physics. He is one of a handful of people whose work may form the foundation of a ‘theory of everything’, a description of nature so fundamental yet so all-encompassing that it would be able to account for all the phenomena of the natural world.

Scientists who know Hawking and work with him tend to protest that once one gets past the obvious disabilities, he is a scientist like any other, with theories and ideas and opinions; Hawking himself has said that for someone with his disease, theoretical physics is a singularly fitting profession, requiring cogitation first and foremost. On the other hand, as Michael White and John Gribbin intimate, Hawking seems to have been a listless student and a rather charmless young man before ALS struck, obviously intelligent but lacking any passion to use his intelligence in one direction rather than another. Thus arises the idea that it was Hawking’s disease, and his fight against it, that gave him some intellectual mettle. According to schoolfriends, there were doubts that he would ever come to very much, and Hawking’s father, a specialist in tropical diseases, tried to steer his son towards medicine, unclear that the young man’s preference for theoretical physics and mathematics was realistic in terms either of his abilities or of the kinds of job it would lead to.

It has become a piece of scientific folklore that Albert Einstein was a poor student at school and only began to prosper once he got away from the confines of formal education to his job in the Zurich patent office, where he hatched his most brilliant ideas. Einstein’s early lack of prowess has been considerably exaggerated, but scientists seem to be fond of the romantic version of his life nevertheless, perhaps out of a suppressed need to rebel against the strictures of the formal scientific education they all endured. But generally speaking, exceptional ability in science, as in music, tends to be recognisable early on, and despite White and Gribbin’s recounting of the half-remembered doubts of a few childhood companions, it is clear that Hawking was an exceptional student. He did unusually well in his Oxford entrance exams, and continued to do unusually well as an undergraduate, excelling, in Oxbridge fashion, without great apparent effort or enthusiasm. He seems to have been directionless and more than a little vain, but he was unarguably clever.

Still, the number of clever Oxbridge students who go on to greatness is exceeded by the number that don’t. Hawking, as he finished his undergraduate career and moved to Cambridge to start a PhD under the cosmologist Dennis Sciama, struggled to find a research topic. At the same time, ALS struck. He began to have some difficulty with speech, and found himself stumbling and dropping things. It was a few months into his postgraduate life that the diagnosis was made, and at first things got rapidly worse. ALS is a wasting disease that causes nerve and spinal tissues to degenerate, leading in most cases to death through paralysis and respiratory failure, and Hawking expected to live only a couple of years.

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