I’ve interviewed Stephen Hawking twice. On both occasions it was in his old office in Silver Street, Cambridge – in front of his huge poster of Marilyn Monroe. The first time, in 1989, I was a little anxious, not because I was with the world’s best-known scientist, but because I found the awkward silences waiting for his answers hard to manage. What do you do, having asked a question, during the two or three minutes it takes him to put together a sentence on his machine? You can’t stare at him for that long – we’re not equipped to do that with anyone for more than seconds. Ignore him? The way we ignore other crippled folk, without realising it? Hardly!
I persevered. He would signal ‘ready’ when his reply was about to be released through his voice box, and I’d turn my recorder back on. During this process he began to gurgle and choke. His nurse, later his second wife, Elaine, came in to help. It was routine for them, disconcerting for me.
On the second occasion, in 1996, I was more relaxed and decided to be jokey and ignore his predicament. This worked well. Stephen Hawking enjoys a lark, as you will see from the poignant cover picture of the book where he poses like a buffoon among his boat club members in Oxford. I was there to discuss A Brief History of Time (1988) and whether anyone much had read it, notwithstanding the sales. I told him I had got the actor John Bell to read an excerpt. This was an in-joke as another John Bell was also a renowned physicist. ‘Get it?’ I asked. ‘Of course!’ Hawking replied, seeming to smile. At one point, I corrected a spelling mistake he made. He fixed it quickly. Treat him like a normal human being and it all falls into place.
‘Within the shrunken frame, behind the scientific legend, is a friendly fellow who wants to be in touch.’
My Brief History reminds the reader of all this: within the shrunken frame, behind the scientific legend, is a friendly fellow who wants to be in touch. He has magnificent scientific ideas to show off, and he has some thoughts about endurance that are astonishing when you think of how you would react in a similar state of deprivation.
He hasn’t been able to scratch his nose for decades, to talk (since his larynx was removed), to wipe his own bum, to feed himself, to move much more than a cheek muscle with which to manage his computer – his lifeline to the world. Yet, since being diagnosed with motor neurone disease he has married twice, had three children, published a world bestseller, flown in space, become a Fellow of the Royal Society, published some really important physics, and narrated a few television series. Not bad for a man who ought to be dead.
The most remarkable statement in this charming, short book is at the end. He explains how he has endured when few of us can contemplate doing likewise. You concentrate on what you can do and not on what you can’t, he says. However disabled you are, he insists, there is always something left, probably enough, to let you have a goodish life.
The other revelation, for me, was his repeated use of the word ‘intellectual’. Now it’s been my experience in England that calling a chap an intellectual is near as shocking as calling him impotent. ‘Clever’ is okay, but ‘intellectual’ smacks of The Continent and is clearly unacceptable to many straight Brits. But Hawking really is an intellectual and can live in his mind with relish. That is how he learned not to give up. He does theoretical physics in his head (no apparatus required) and writes up the results, laboriously, but to good effect.
That’s how this book was written, as he tells us, at a rate of three words per minute. As a result it is short, pellucid in its plainness, and gives you the story of a gawky young boy growing up in postwar England with all its deprivations, who rises in a kind of routine way through school and Oxford, lazily he claims, until the near death sentence comes and he becomes, paradoxically, galvanised.
The many photographs of this progress are included and are essential to the tale. They show how someone who started as almost nondescript, however gifted intellectually, and became a superstar through sheer willpower and determination.
Are his scientific contributions really that great? When I ask his colleagues, they reply ‘undoubtedly’. Is he really having fun or just saying so in that polite English manner? Again undoubtedly, as his famous bets about cosmology with Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech make clear: his is an exploration of nature to be enjoyed at every stage.
He answers all these questions in the book, either directly or by allusion. What he doesn’t talk about is the gossip, though he does state that he had to leave Jane, his first wife, because he could not endure the presence of her lover regularly in the house. Of the rumoured upheavals with his second wife he hints at them but does not elaborate. Of the science there is plenty, but not so much as to weary the lay reader.
Hawking is now nearly seventy-two. He could die any day now – but you could say that of any man that age. How he attained such a classic lifespan, three score years and ten, is both astonishing and worth reading about. However briefly.