Told with the greatest humility, My Brief History by Stephen Hawking is a fascinating jubilee of life, love and triumph over adversity that gives its readers unprecedented access to the heart and mind of one of the most famous and loved living scientists.
The following is an excerpt of my book review published in association with Nature.com and Scientific American. The full review can be read online at [...]
The autobiography revealed a great deal about Hawking, the man. Most notably, it took Hawking out of a wheelchair and showed us a vibrant, active, and youthful man. The featured image on the cover of the book, titled "The Boat Club at play," is of Hawking leaping into the air holding a white kerchief. Similarly, we see Hawking, once again defying gravity much later in life, in the last photo of the book where he is floating in "Zero-G" aboard NASA's "Vomit Comet."
Hawking's autobiography genuinely burst to life with 47 archival images, including candid family portraits with his parents and his two sisters, Philippa and Mary, affirming a happy childhood. (A photo of his adopted brother, Edward, is absent). Some of the photos exposed colorful, non-centrist, and controversial aspects of the lives and political beliefs of his parents, Frank and Isobel.The photos of Stephen's first wife, Jane, whom he married in 1965, and their children -- from eldest to youngest: Robert, Lucy, and Tim -- unveiled tender, celebratory moments depicting nearly 25 years of a happy marriage and a joyful home life. The photos, however, masked brewing marital tensions that followed a life-threatening event related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as "ALS" or "Lou Gehrig's disease." Hawking said his declining health led to his wife's affair. He laid bare the circumstances in more detail than expected on pages 84-88, explaining their eventual physical separation in 1990.
The narrative story revealed much about Hawking's early life and education. First, we learned that disability was not new to his family. His mother, who was Scottish and the daughter of a physician, had an older sister afflicted with Down's syndrome, a heritable disease. The experience probably imbued her with an understanding of the patience and dignity required in the process of care giving with the differently abled. While there are some instances in studies showing the heritability of ALS, the actual cause of the motor neural disease remains unknown. His father, who was academically and professionally trained in medicine, was aptly suited to raise a child who developed a medical condition. In short, Hawking could not have been born to a family that would be more capable to provide him with the love, empathy, dignity, and emotional support to pursue his dreams and become the scientist he is today.
As a fellow Cantabrigian, I found the chapters on Cambridge life to be quite relatable and I feel most alumni would enjoy reading the book for the same reason.
In addition to allowing the reader to learn about Hawking as a family man, the book conveyed some surprising stories about his professional studies and career as a cosmologist. Hawking also used his autobiography to correct some misconceptions. He revealed examples of how he felt certain incidences in his life, and his overall public image, had been distorted by the media.
The book no doubt serves as the basis of the recent movie, Hawking, released in the UK by Vertigo Films, September 2013.