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Stephen Hawking Turns 72 Today. This Documentary Shows Why That's Incredible.

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State of Mind

September 28, 1992

Stanley Kauffmann reviews the Stephen Hawking documentary, A Brief History of Time.

Bantam has recently published A Reader's Companion to A Brief History of Time, edited by Stephen Hawking (194 pp., $25), and a companion it is—not to the book but to the documentary film of that title just released here (by Triton). Hawking says in his foreword that "this is The Book of The Film of The Book. I don't know if they are planning a Film of The Book of The Film of The Book."

He can well be jocular: His joke is about a useful book about a completely fascinating film, itself occasioned by a book on theoretical physics that has sold five-and-a-half million copies in 30 languages, written—as many more millions know—by a shrunken and paralyzed Englishman, bound to a wheelchair, who can communicate only with a "clicker" that connects with a voice synthesizer. (This, he complains, has given him an American accent. I thought it more Irish myself.)

The film, gently and empathically made, is more about the man than the work. It consists principally of interviews: with mother, sister, numerous friends, teachers, students. (Wife and children are absent; there are family difficulties.) These are interwoven with "voice"-overs by Hawking and, inevitably, poignant photographs from the healthy past. The Reader's Companion prints all the spoken material in the film, plus much that was cut, together with biographical notes on the speakers. I wish the film had identified the speakers: They are listed at the end, but that isn't much help.

The director was Errol Morris, whose The Thin Blue Line (1988) I egregiously omitted to review. That picture, which was about a man wrongly convicted of murder in Dallas and which got him exonerated, was made in an intricate, idiosyncratic style. The Hawking film is not. It is a straight TV documentary (sponsored by American, British, and Japanese networks), done with skill and warm lighting, principally by John Bailey. Only two matters are unconventional. In the midst of a subject's remarks, the camera often "blinks" as the film cuts to a later part of his/her interview. Presumably these blinks are left visible like a touch of dissonance in conventional music—to keep us alert. And the score by Philip Glass, who also did the score for the earlier Morris film, has an apt spacy feeling.

About Hawking's work at Cambridge, I, along with a few million other purchasers of his book, am incompetent to speak. All the talk of the Black Hole, the Big Bang, and the inevitable Big Crunch sounds like dinner-chat concessions to those with my grip of science; still, they are welcome. Bernard Shaw says somewhere that there is a law of the conservation of credulity. At one time, people believed that a million angels could dance on the head of a pin. We scoff at them, yet we believe that the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. Most of us have as much reason of our own to believe one proposition as the other: We take the word of experts. I and millions of others are quite willing, and presumably quite right, to believe that Hawking has a giant mind, that he is rightly placed in a professorial chair once held by Newton.

But Hawking's personal story is within the grasp of all, and grasp is the right word: It grips. He was a bright boy and youth, keen on mathematical problems and on dancing. He was bright, too, at Oxford but he says, lazy:

I was on the borderline between a first- and second-class degree. I had to be interviewed to determine which I should get. They asked me about my future plans. I replied that I wanted to do research. If they gave me a first, I would go to Cambridge. If they gave me a second, I would stay in Oxford. They gave me a first.

Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig's disease. The onset of the sclerosis, his marriage, and the arrival of his three children, in that order, are shown; further developments in his private life are not. We get a clear view of his present state and his mode of contending with his condition in order to get on with his work. Nurses are constantly in attendance. His office—a replica made for filming—is decorated with two large photos of Marilyn Monroe. (The closing credits thank the photographer Philippe Halsman for the right of reproduction here—a nicely anomalous touch for a film about a scientist.)

Hawking is not religious. The central question of his thinking, as put by a friend, is: "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" It's not a question that would plague a religious person—at least, not phrased that way. Hawking, according to Michael White and John Gribbin in their biography, "is not an atheist; he simply finds the idea of faith something he cannot absorb into his view of the Universe." Perhaps it's as well for physics and the world that he (dis)believes as he does.

But more persists in this film than the fervor of a rationalist trying to move toward an explanation of everything—of more than everything. His very life apostrophizes the work being done in that life. Here is a scientist saved for science by science. Before the invention and development of computer technology and all the other sophisticated devices that make his being possible, he would long since have been merely a sad case, a mute prisoner within a useless body. He stands (figuratively, alas) in the forefront of science because other scientists have made it possible—almost a science-fiction figure, a nearly disembodied brain.

Within that empowerment by science, something seems to be happening for which scientific thought and research are ultimately only the medium. When we hear the deaf Beethoven's music or look at the maimed Renoir's paintings, we mutter about courage, physical and moral, about the fire of genius overcoming handicaps. Beneath that fire, however, there is another: the fire of self, the refusal of the ego, sheer ego, to be slighted by fate.

Few of us can judge Hawking's intellect, but any of us can sense that fire, that insistence of self on self. Stephen Hawking (thinks Stephen Hawking) is going to have only one chance, one time around, and before he slips into infinity, Hawking wants Hawking to make that chance the fullest one possible. He is the sole guardian of his particular collection of brain cells and curiosities, and illness or not, he seems amiably imperious in his intent to make the most of them. For this reason, along with several others, Morris's film about him is viscerally and intellectually thrilling.