Stephen W. Hawking is a professor at the University of Cambridge, successor to Isaac Newton, and one of the major contributors to the understanding of the modern universe, including black holes and the big bang. To the millions worldwide who have purchased his nontechnical account of the intellectual struggle to develop a unified theory of the universe, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988), however, Hawking is the diminutive man in the wheelchair pictured on the front cover. In his book, Hawking acknowledged that he was a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS) but downplayed his disability. Thanks to White and Gribbin, Hawking’s many readers can now know the man in the wheelchair as his friends and colleagues do, and understand what a struggle and personal triumph that book represented.
It is ironic, but Hawking’s disease was a turning point in his life in both positive and negative ways. Before he was stricken at the age of twenty, he was brilliant but unfocused, destined for professional success if only he could find his calling and utilize his talents to their fullest. His parents were from the middle class and educated at the University of Oxford, more interested in pursuits of the mind than in material goods. Books and paintings were abundant in their house, even if the wallpaper was peeling. Hawking’s father was a medical researcher specializing in tropical diseases, often away in Africa, while his mother was active in Labour Party politics. Educated at St. Albans School and Oxford, Hawking entered the University of Cambridge in 1962 to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, specializing in cosmology. To that point in his academic career he had personified the Oxford ideal of success without effort. He was frequently bored and unchallenged as an undergraduate. Both intellectually and psychologically, he was ill-prepared for the demands of graduate study.
Then the disease struck. First, he needed a cane to walk; ultimately, he was confined to a wheelchair. His voice deteriorated over time, until it was reduced to a slur that only his family and closest friends could understand. Eventually, he lost even that voice to a tracheostomy, made necessary by a bout of pneumonia. (Subsequently, he was given a computer-generated voice synthesizer.) Nevertheless, his very survival was a miracle. When his disease was diagnosed, his doctors had predicted death within two years.
Hawking’s life has not been, however, without joy. Almost simultaneously with the onset of ALS, Hawking met Jane Wilde, whom he would marry in 1965. She gave him the will to live and a reason to struggle against his fate. In addition, his decision to aspire to a career as a theoretical physicist was a fortuitous one. Compared to almost any other field in science, ALS would have relatively little impact upon his research efforts. His mind, the chief tool of the theoretical physicist, would remain strong, even as his body deteriorated. Realizing that marriage required a job, Hawking began to work hard—by his own admission, for the first time in his life. He found that he liked doing physics and received his Ph.D. in 1965. The next twenty-five years included increasing success as a scientist, increasing responsibility as a husband and father of three children, and ever-increasing struggles against the ravages of ALS.
Based almost exclusively on interviews—many done by the authors—and Hawking’s autobiographical writings, and written with the cooperation of Hawking’s friends, White and Gribbin’s biography has many strengths. It captures the essence of Hawking’s character and life: the intensity, dedication, and, despite everything he confronted in everyday life, the humor. It is full of anecdotes that demonstrate the impact Hawking has had on others. The result is a clear picture of Hawking...
(The entire section is 1589 words.)