Stephen Hawking

I was reading a Cracked article the other day: 14 Photographs That Shatter Your Image of Famous People, and #13 was “A Young, Cool Stephen Hawking, Standing With His Bride.”


It actually looks quite a bit like the new Q from the most recent James Bond movie, Skyfall.


It made me want to watch a Stephen Hawking biopic starring Ben Whishaw. (There’s already a biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch that is apparently pretty good, but after watching Cumberbatch in both BBC’s Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness, I have trouble seeing him as young Stephen Hawking.)

Instead, I checked out a couple of biographies from my library:

Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking: Revolutionary Physicist
By Melissa McDaniel

I got this book from the library because it was short and looked like a quick overview. Something like an Encyclopedia article: less detailed, less accurate, but somewhat more reliable than Wikipedia. I wasn’t even entirely sure if this book was supposed to be in the adult section rather than the young reader section. But, no, it was properly catalogued. It’s just that it’s kind of a book for people who don’t like reading.  Although it was frequently vague and/or confusing about the order of events, it was a useful overview in preparation for a more detailed biography.

Stephen Hawking 2Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind
By Kitty Ferguson

Alas, this book was a severe disappointment. I managed to force my way all the way through it, but I suggest avoiding it. Only in retrospect did I notice that of the five reviews on the back of the book, only one of them was for the book “Stephen Hawking”—the other four for person Stephen Hawking.

Ferguson has a serious case of hero worship for Hawking and it hamstrings this book. I imagine that one doesn’t write a biography of someone without feeling strongly for or against that person, but most biographers attempt to showcase their subjects in all their humanity. Ferguson, on the other hand, does more to obscure Hawking’s existence as a human being than she does to reveal it, presenting Hawking as a godly figure, without failing or flaw.

Ferguson’s own presence is also extremely present, as she highlights her connection to Stephen Hawking, talking about how her children went to the same school as the Hawking children did, how Hawking himself reviewed the manuscript for her first biography of him, and how she met with him at his office! I can see the stars in her eyes and little hearts floating around her head. In keeping with an overblown crush, Ferguson uses the passive voice in a pattern that I believe intentionally denies Hawking culpability in anything that Ferguson didn’t approve of and attributed to him actions and decisions that Ferguson did approve of. Hawking is presented as having perfect intuition for physics such that he requires no proof and his word should be accepted as gospel. Questionable events are either denied, skimmed over, or not mentioned at all. She presents Hawking as a messiah figure—awesome, majestic, unknowable and yet all-knowing—and Ferguson as his faithful disciple—a devoted lesser being who is brought greatness by proximity.

In addition, Ferguson attempts to explain a few actual physics issues that Hawking had worked on over the years, but learning new physics concepts requires a certain amount of trust in the teacher. After, 1, obscuring and contradicting biographical events, 2, describing students as working on incomprehensible and mysterious equations, and, 3, explaining that the Pythagorean Theorem changes when used in space-time*, Ferguson lost her credibility with me for any of her physics explanations.

By the end, this book was a pure slog to get through. I definitely do not recommend it to anyone.

In comparison, I was increasingly impressed by the earlier book which was short, to the point, and presented a factual and nuanced view of the actual person, Stephen Hawking.

* The Pythagorean Theorem is a relationship between the sides of a right triangle and the hypotenuse. It is most often summarized as A2 + B2 = C2. It would take a thorough explanation  from someone I trusted to know what they were talking about before I was willing to believe that when time is a dimension, the equation suddenly becomes A2 = B2 + C2.

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