Stephen Hawking is going to die. Of course, so are you, but Hawking will probably go first (unless the Nass has finally tapped into the coveted 95–104 demographic). In fact, the world’s most famous physicist has been reminded of his imminent death constantly for five decades, since he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease as a young graduate student. He went so far as to suspend his studies, thinking he might die any month, but such predictions proved to be rather premature.
In Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, Kitty Ferguson describes a man who lives every day as if it’s his last while somehow still expecting to live forever. He speeds along on his wheelchair throwing caution to the wind (once actually getting hit by a car), and refuses to retire from physics even in his 70s. A recent post on Perez Hilton’s website claims he frequents a strip club near Caltech; while I am not sure I trust the source, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if a man who’s gone through two marriages and seems so eager to defy his physical limits also hit up a strip club from time to time.
Ferguson, three months older than Hawking but in considerably better health, seems much more conscious of her mortality; I certainly can’t imagine her at a strip club. Her writing implicitly disapproves of Hawking’s recklessness, and one gets the impression that she sees him as a child who never grew up—in fact, Ferguson even said as much when speaking at our very own Lewis Library a few weeks back. She was referring to the curiosity that drives his science, but I don’t think I’m imagining the maternal instincts she feels towards the guy. It’s clear that despite what she perceives as his flaws (ego, stubbornness, etc.) she can’t help liking the man.
Ferguson herself was a music major at Julliard, and while science always fascinated her, she didn’t begin to write it until the ripe age of 48. She often sought advice from Hawking, but while she has known him for a while, she says “no more than two or three” know him well, “and even they have their doubts.” Given this, she recognizes how easy it would be to simply write about the myth of Stephen Hawking—to dramatize his life into a legend, ignoring the actual man behind the curtain. And while some reviews have accused her of avoiding criticism, Ferguson maintains that she was balanced, and included the bad with the good. Having read the book, I’d have to agree.
As it happens, other than her disapproval of some of Hawking’s wilder ways, the place where negativity comes through the most is in her discussion of Hawking’s religious views, or lack thereof. Ferguson does not take a stance outright, but I think she should have. Instead, she implicitly sympathizes with Hawking’s first wife, a devout woman who, as the book tells us, was deeply hurt by her husband’s less-than-theistic remarks. And when Hawking takes in a deeply religious grad student, Ferguson uses the opportunity to paint her subject as something of an outlier, as if a nonreligious physicist were something radical. She suggests that tempering influences such as his wife and the student added positive diversity into his life, and kept him from going off the deep end.
For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that, statistically, your average physicist is an atheist. I have nothing against Kitty Ferguson being religious—heck, some of my closest friends and family are believers (hey guys!). And I don’t have a problem with her disapproval of Hawking’s views (otherwise, my disapproval of hers would be as hypocritical as relig—um, I mean…moving on). What rankled me a bit was the condescension she showed, both in this case and whenever she disagreed with Hawking. It always felt like, “Oh, that Stephen and his silly atheism,” or, “Oh, that Stephen is going to get himself hurt someday if he keeps driving like that!” While in most cases she has a deep admiration for the man, when she feels he is in the wrong she doesn’t say so; instead, she takes the voice of, well, a disappointed mother.
Ferguson’s tone is hard to define, and doesn’t translate well in any short quote, but I will try to use an example from page 242. In responding to a somewhat humorous criticism of universal health care (“If Stephen Hawking had been British, he’d be dead by now!”), the Cambridge astrophysicist lent his voice to Earthly issues and voiced his support for the British system and, more generally, for the ideal of universal health care at large. But Ferguson put in the last word: “Jane Hawking might not have been so upbeat about the [National Health Service], given their failure to pay for 24-hour home nursing.”
I found this frustrating to no end, although it may be hard to understand why. It is certainly true that costs of taking care of Stephen’s condition placed a heavy burden on him and his wife, and it is probably accurate that Jane was frustrated in the government’s inability to fully support her husband. And in fairness, Ferguson was responding to Stephen’s earlier remark that “the National Health Service has taken great care of me for over forty years.” But that’s not what the issue is about. It would be perfectly acceptable if Ferguson argued, for example, that Hawking’s life were a good case study against universal health care. But instead she simply slips in a smug remark that suggests that Hawking’s political views are based on an inaccurate understanding of his own life, and ends the discussion there. It’s the motherly thing again. She recognizes that Hawking is in many ways a great man, but everywhere implies that she knows what’s best for him.
Otherwise, it’s a great biography. The combination of personal anecdotes and more journalistic narratives craft a complete image of the man, and her ability to simply explain of his science was really quite commendable. In Lewis Library she said she writes for “intelligent people who aren’t scientists,” and I think in that sense the book is a success. But while I came away liking the book, I’m not sure that I came away liking Kitty Ferguson.
Ferguson seemed nice enough for that brief time back at Lewis, charming, funny, informative. She didn’t seem as much of, for lack of a better word (although I’m not sure that I’d want one), a fuddy-duddy. And I respect her for, like her subject, still working into her 70s. She ended her talk with the question of Hawking’s legacy; although I’m sure Hawking would like to believe his greatest achievement is yet to come, even he would probably admit that the bulk of his scientific work is behind him.
Ferguson believes that Hawking would prefer for his legacy to be entirely scientific; he refused to let his disability to define him in life, so why let it define him in death? But she also suspects (and I would imagine she’s right) that his ultimate legacy will be twofold, neither of which will be strictly scientific. The first of which is the spark he ignited in young folk (myself included) who cite a reading of A Brief History of Time as the moment they decided to pursue a career in science, especially cosmology. And the other does relate to his disability, but focuses on his ability to overcome obstacles, casting him as an example of the human spirit.
At the climax of her talk, Ferguson reflected on the future, and wondered how her prediction regarding Hawking’s legacy would hold up over the next 30–50 years. She then asked if anyone in the audience would be alive in that time. To give you some context, the small congregation consisted of a middle-aged cameraman, fifteen or so white-haired folk, another student and myself. But I think it was unfair of her to assume her own death in 30–50 years, let alone that of people she did not know. Thirty years would put her just over a hundred, which is not entirely unreasonable. It seemed a defeatist attitude to set the bar so low.
Regardless, I waved my hand, as I very much intend to be alive in fifty years. The cameraman swiveled towards me, zooming in, and I gave him a salute. I felt so young and vibrant, like a beacon of youth in a room tainted by decay. I hoped that the elderly around me would continue living healthy, long lives. And when I left the talk, I felt inspired, to do science, yes, but also simply to live. I may not be the next Stephen Hawking, but from him, in so many ways, I have a lot to learn.