A Brief History of Steven Hawking

Stephen Finnigan’s Hawking, debuts at TIFF November 22nd

Quick, name another physicist that’s been on The Simpsons. They’ve had a Nobel prize-winning chemist (Dudley Herschbach), and a renowned paleontologist (Stephen Jay Gould). But in the public mind one luminary science guy’s cameo registers more deeply than the rest. With his wheelchair (that apparently flies) and his computer-synthesized voice, Stephen Hawking’s iconic appearance with TV’s most dysfunctional family was a classic moment in popular culture. Hawking had been famous for years before his cameo with yellow people in two dimensions, of course. A new documentary simply titled Hawking takes us through the great scientist’s life, and how he changed our view of the universe. Look out for wormholes, after the jump.

A bright but undistinguished student in his early years at Oxford, Stephen Hawking’s star began to rise at the same time that his body began to unravel. He was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) while he pursued his PhD, eventually confined to a wheelchair and losing the capacity for speech. Those crushing limitations proved a crucible for a gifted mind. “He could move at lightning speed across the frontiers of knowledge,” a fellow scientist observes, having developed unique tools for inner visualization. Fascinated by the origins of the universe and black holes, Hawking developed radical theories of the big bang. He discovered in the process that black holes didn’t swallow everything around them, but rather also emitted subatomic particles, which came to be known as Hawking radiation. His breakthroughs linked gravity and quantum mechanics, pushing ever closer to the physicists’ grail of a grand unified theory, something Einstein unsuccessfully sought throughout his life. (The GUT remains elusive, however.)

Steven Hawking in earlier days.

Hawking’s fame exploded to another level with the publication of A Brief History of Time in 1988. Jokingly referred to as one of the most read, least understood books ever published, A Brief History explained the evolution of Hawking’s ideas in layman’s terms. It’s fascinating, but progressively more dense as you wade with Hawking into his cosmic mind. I’ve read it, but Steve, you lost me in those last chapters… However challenging the ideas, the man and his work caught fire with the public, the book going on to sell millions of copies.

Stephen Finnegan’s documentary Hawking takes us through the early days to Hawking’s breakthroughs to the laurels and accolades of the present. Stories and anecdotes abound, with the participation of many people close to him, including former students, contemporaries, celebrities, nurses and even his first wife, divorced in 1991. While pedestrian in its presentation, we’re given a strong sense of Hawking’s indefatigable spirit, his humour and the insatiable curiosity that’s always driven him. If there’s a glaring omission, it’s that not enough time is devoted to Hawking’s theories and insights. They’re certainly touched on, but in a bid to make the film accessible, we’re tuned more to Biography than Discovery as the doc parses his life. Hawking’s is an extraordinary life, though, altering our understanding of the universe even as he endures his intense physical struggles.

“We are all different but we share the same human spirit,” Hawking says. “Perhaps it is human nature that we adapt, and survive.” Hawking is the best embodiment of that spirit, questing, never resting, always seeking to understand. And who knows? If we’re lucky, maybe Hawking and Homer are right, and the universe is donut-shaped.

Hawking appears at TIFF in Toronto starting Friday, November 22nd, and runs through to Thursday, December 5th. Screenings will also feature a brief video introduction by Stephen Hawking, together with the Perimeter Institute’s Neil Turok. For tickets and schedule information, head over to TIFF.

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