Book review: My Brief History

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hawking library AP Stephen Hawking gives a talk titled 'A Brief History of Mine' to workers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles on April 9, 2013. Photo: Cedars-Sinai, Eric Reed

My Brief History

Stephen Hawking

Bantam Press

 

Like millions of others in the 1980s, I owned an unread copy of A Brief History of Time. It was many years later that I eventually got around to reading it and, on going back to it, I still have to confess that I do not understand much of it. No matter, for now we have Stephen Hawking’s memoir and it is very readable indeed.

The first third of this slim volume deals with his childhood in a straight-forward manner. His father was a medical doctor involved in research and the family comes across as somewhat eccentric – they holidayed in a gypsy caravan parked in a field near Weymouth. Stephen was not the brightest boy in the class but nevertheless was nick-named Einstein. We do, however, read that he “… was always very interested in how things operated and would take them apart… but was not so good at putting them back together again”.

He is also fairly dismissive of his undergraduate days up at Oxford, claiming to have done no work and joining the Boat Club to improve his chances socially. We are then introduced to his post-graduate studies at Cambridge which brought him to Dennis Sciama who played a major role in developing British physics after World War ll and who is now considered as one of the fathers of modern cosmology. Faced with the choice between particle physics (then the poster child of theoretical physics) under Fred Hoyle and cosmology then being pioneered by Sciama, Hawking was happy that Hoyle already had too many students and the choice was made for him.

When he was 21, “clumsiness” led to two weeks of tests in hospital and the diagnosis of motor neurone disease. Again, this is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner, as is his marriage to Jane Wilde at about the same time. He and Jane were divorced, but not before they had three children, and he subsequently married one of his nurses from whom he is now also divorced.

Hawking lightens his tale with flashes of wit and boy-ish humour, but his determination and intellect shine throughout.

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