Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review: 'Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics' by Leonard Mlodinow

Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics


Leonard Mlodinow was "selected" by Stephen Hawking as someone he'd like to collaborate with. How one collaborates with a cosmology genius trapped in a useless body - and write two books together - is the central thread of these memoirs of those times. The result is simply titled Stephen Hawking.

The book is a careful braiding of three streams: the memoirs of those times, snippets of Hawking's life story (outside Leonard Mlodinow) and explanations of physics, cosmology, quantum theories, black holes and the other issues where Hawking dominated. This makes for a constantly varied read, in which Mlodinow starts a story and finishes it 10 pages later because the other strands of the braid get their turn in between.

Hawking had a staff of nine. There was a gatekeeper, an IT person and carers, round the clock:
"Stephen’s carers had to watch him closely. Whenever he awakened, they’d try to figure out if he needed something. A dozen times each night he’d ask, with his eyes, to be turned and for his pillows repositioned. He couldn’t shift his weight from time to time as healthy people do, so he’d get uncomfortable. His bones hurt. In addition, his carers would have to listen to make sure his stoma was clear so he could breathe. And every couple of hours, as he slept, they gathered his vitamins, mixed them with liquid, and fed them directly into his stomach through the peg."
“What you do for a newborn baby you did for Stephen. All of us,” said his carer Viv. “When I came off shift and he was still alive, I felt I’d done a good shift. Because he was alive. Because I’d kept him alive.” Without his round-the-clock care, Stephen once said, “I would last exactly five days and die.”

He was so weak that carers had to place his head at just that peculiar angle or it woud fall over. When his glasses shifted, an alarm would sound because without them he could not type and speak. He lived this way for decades, and still topped the charts in radical propositions, and worldwide fame.

Hawking communicated two ways: he could smile or grimace, or he could type with his cheeks. His glasses had sensors that detected flexing in his cheeks. He could pick out letters, words or phrases from lists on the computer screen. When he lost control of his last finger, he was still capable of producing six words per minute. As he aged, that declined, to two.

Working out mathematical equations was therefore out. Instead, he invented a way of analyzing problems using mental geometry. His prodigious memory allowed no detail to escape, as Mlodinow found out working in the fourth year of a year and a half book project. Maddeningly, he says, Hawking would be right, even if it made no difference to the book they were writing. He could remember passages and illustrations with great accuracy.

Hawking said he would not have been the same physicist if not for his illness. Given his near complete physical limitations, he was forced to focus. He was totally obsessed, checking for new papers and journals daily, always pondering the many physics problems he posed for himself.  

He traveled with an entourage, requiring multiple rooms and special accommodation for his many and constant needs. He therefore had money problems. He managed to live off grant money until his book A Brief History of Time went big time, but the money went out more quickly as he aged. In his case, it really was publish of perish. Which is is where Leonard Mlodinow came in.

Working with a writer capable of six words per minute takes a special kind of person. Arguing with a man who cannot speak, who is constantly interrupted by carers and people dropping by all made Mlodinow's challenge near exhausting. Privacy, concentration and hard work were all but impossible when they were together. He took to smoking and drinking, as most of the carers did. Hawking did that to everyone, including two wives, and nearly a third.

Hawking was king of own little world. He ignored deadlines, made unilateral decisions, and dismissed people at his whim. This is about all that remained of his pre-illness state, when he was a reckless driver, a bad coxswain, and a generally wild child among Cambridge students. There was no hesitancy about taking chances. The young Hawking took them. Locked in his cage of a life, he focused on physics.

The humanity of Hawking was almost startling. He thrived on interruptions, because they were human contact. He loved to travel and meet physicists, present papers and theories publicly, and dine out. He had a soap opera of a staff, with a hodgepodge of personal problems and attitudes that kept him engaged. At no point was he bitter or self-pitying, although his wives might point out he was selfish, self-centered and inconsiderate of them. His situation was beyond medicine's means, and he made the absolute best of it, shrugging off down times and setbacks. What temper he had he saved for arguing with other physicists.

He was also the poster boy for science. Hawking would proclaim new theories with absolute certainty, then walk them back when they proved faulty or just plain wrong. That process is what science is all about, and everyone is wrong most of the time. It comes with the territory, though many stubbornly persist against all evidence to the contrary. Hawking was pleased to accept and move on. It meant progress - a definitive solution to an uncertainty. It was all good. As Mlodinow puts it: "Reconciling contradictory theories and ideas was one of his great strengths. It came as naturally to him ... He was a man both dead and alive, both powerful and powerless, both daring and careful. With Stephen, contradiction was not just a philosophy of life, it was a way of life."

A most unusual life, well lived.







Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.