Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Brief History by Stephen Hawking

My Brief History is just that - a very short autobiography of Stephen Hawking's remarkable life from his childhood in postwar London to his ground-breaking work in cosmology and quantum physics. It is a succinct, engaging story that begins in 1942.

Stephen Hawking was born in 1942 in Oxford, England. Hawking had three siblings, Mary, Philippa and an adopted brother, Edward, who passed away in early adulthood. Because the school he attended as a child did not believe in formally instructing children to read, Stephen did not learn to read until he was eight years old. When he was a young boy, Stephen loved model trains but did not have a good working one until after the war when his father returned from a visit to America with a new train. Stephen was interested in electric trains and with his friend, John McClenahan and later on with another school friend, Roger Ferneyhough, he built different working models of trains, boats, planes and games. Hawking writes that he had "an urge to know how systems works and how to control them."  Later on this urge to understand would be satisfied by his endeavours in theoretical physics.

When Hawking attended St. Albans school he was an average student. Stephen had a group of six or seven friends with whom he would discuss many topics, including "the origin of the universe and whether it had required a God to create it and set it going."
Stephen wanted to study mathematics and physics but his father, fearing there would be no jobs for mathematicians, wanted him to study medicine. To Stephen, "Physics was always the most boring subject at school because it was so easy and obvious. Chemistry was more fun because unexpected things, such as explosions, kept happening. But physics and astronomy offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we are here."

In March, 1959, Hawking went to Oxford to write the scholarship exam and was admitted at age seventeen. At the time Hawking attended college, most were single-sex and responsible for protecting the morals of the students. Being caught in bed with a member of the opposite sex meant automatic expulsion from the college. The attitude in colleges at this time was to do as little work as possible, which Stephen Hawking managed to accomplish. He graduated Oxford and went to Cambridge. But before arriving at Cambridge Hawking journeyed to Iran with a fellow student, John Elder, who spoke Farsi. During this trip, Stephen travelled to Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis.

In 1962, Cambridge beckoned. There Stephen was to be supervised by Dennis Sciama. Although he originally wanted to study with the renowned astronomer Fred Hoyle, it turned out that the assignment of Sciama was a fortuitous one. Sciama had more time to devote to the young cosmologist. Hawking decided to study in the neglected areas of cosmology and gravitation. 

During Hawking's last year at Oxford he noticed that he was becoming increasingly clumsy and when this trend continued during his time at Cambridge he decided to see his doctor. Tests were ordered and it was eventually concluded that Hawking had motor neuron disease and that he had two years to live. Although this was depressing as doctors could do nothing to help him, Hawking continued to struggle on with his thesis work and even began to enjoy life. He also began to work hard at his studies and found he enjoyed this very much. He also fell in love and this greatly helped his outlook on life. He married Jane Wilde in 1965.  Two years later they had their first child, Robert and then three years later, Lucy was born.

When Hawking began his graduate studies in 1963, the principal question in cosmology was whether the universe had a beginning. The Big Bang theory and the steady-state theory were two possible origins. Around this time Roger Penrose had done some ground-breaking work on black holes and singularities. When a star dies it contacts in on itself and there is a point where time and space come to an end - known as a singularity. Hawking decided to apply this to formation of the universe and this became his thesis topic and led into his life's work. Hawking "has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time"

From this point on Hawking provides short chapters on his work on black holes and time travel as well as writing his most popular work, A Brief History of Time.  Hawking writes, "I was sure that nearly everyone is interested in how the universe operates, but most people cannot follow mathematical equations. I don't care much for equations myself...mainly because I don't have an intuitive feeling for equations. Instead, I think in pictorial terms, and my aim in the book was to describe these mental images in words..." The book became a huge hit in both America and Britain where it remained on the best seller lists for months. Hawking has also written many other books that explain the science of black holes and the universe.

My Brief History is a great read for those who are fans of Stephen Hawking and those who would like to know more about this famous physicist whose life was the focus of the bio-pic The Theory of Everything. Hawking devotes more time talking about specific aspects of his work like black holes and time travel.

There are lots of black and white photographs of Hawking during his lifetime, featuring his family, his first wife Jane, and his second wife, Elaine, his life as a student and even his recent travels and his experiencing zero gravity. Despite his severe disability, Hawking is a well travelled man, having visited many countries. He is probably the most famous scientist in the world partly because of his disability and partly because his work in theoretical physics has made black holes, time travel and quantum theory sexy.

The last chapter of the book is probably the most enlightening. Although Hawking initially felt he had been dealt a low blow, he remains satisfied with his life, having had two marriages, "three beautiful and accomplished children' and having been successful in his scientific career. Instead of hindering him, his disability has allowed him to focus solely on the theoretical aspect of his career and not having had to lecture. "I have had a full and satisfying life. I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn't prevent them from doing and not regret those they can't do." Ultimately, isn't that the point of it all - a life well lived with the satisfaction that perhaps he has "added something to our understanding of the universe."

Book Details:
My Brief History by Stephen Hawking
New York: Bantam Books      2013
127 pp.

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