The Story and Science of One of the Most Extraordinary, Celebrated and Courageous Figures of Our Time.
Stephen Hawking is one of the most remarkable figures of our time, a Cambridge genius who has earned international celebrity and become an inspiration to those who have witnessed his triumph over disability. This is Hawking’s life story by Kitty Ferguson, written with help from Hawking himself and his close associates.
Ferguson’s Stephen Hawking’s Quest for a Theory of Everything was a Sunday Times bestseller in 1992. She has now transformed that short book into a hugely expanded, carefully researched, up to the minute biography giving a rich picture of Hawking’s life, his childhood, the heart rending beginning of his struggle with motor neurone disease, his ever increasing international fame, and his long personal battle for survival in pursuit of a scientific understanding of the universe. Throughout, Kitty Ferguson also summarizes and explains the cutting-edge science in which Hawking has been engaged.
Stephen Hawking is written with the clarity and simplicity for which all Kitty Ferguson’s books have been praised. The result is a captivating account of an extraordinary life and mind.
The quest for a Theory of Everything
IN THE CENTRE of Cambridge, England, There are a handful of narrow lanes that seem hardly touched by the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. The houses and buildings represent a mixture of eras, but a step around the corner from the wider thoroughfares into any of these little byways is a step back in time, into a passage leading between old college walls or a village street with a medieval church and churchyard or a malt house. Traffic noises from equally old but busier roads nearby are barely audible. There is near silence, birdsong, voices, footsteps. Scholars and townspeople have walked here for centuries.
When I wrote my first book about Stephen Hawking in 1990, I began the story in one of those little streets, Free School Lane. It runs off Bene’t Street, beside the church of St Bene’t’s with its eleventh century bell tower. Around the corner, in the lane, flowers and branches still droop through the iron palings of the churchyard, as they did twenty years ago. Bicycles tethered there belie the antique feel of the place, but a little way along on the right is a wall of black, rough stones with narrow slit windows belonging to the fourteenth-century Old Court of Corpus Christi College, the oldest court in Cambridge. Turn your back to that wall and you will see, high up beside a gothic-style gateway, a plaque that reads, THE CAVENDISH LABORATORY. This gateway and the passage beyond are a portal to a more recent era, oddly tucked away in the medieval street.
There is no hint of the friary that stood on this site in the twelfth century or the gardens that were later planted on its ruins. Instead, bleak, factory like buildings, almost oppressive enough to be a prison, tower over grey asphalt pavement. The situation improves further into the complex, and in the two decades since I first wrote about it some newer buildings have gone up, but the glass walls of these well-designed modern structures are still condemned to reflect little besides the grimness of their older neighbours.
For a century, until the University of Cambridge built the ‘New’ Cavendish Labs in 1974, this complex housed one of the most important centres of physics research in the world. Here, ‘J. J.’ Thomson discovered the electron, Ernest Rutherford probed the structure of the atom and the list goes on and on. When I attended lectures here in the 1990s (for not everything moved to the New Cavendish in 1974), enormous chalk-boards were still in use, hauled noisily up and down with crank driven chain pulley systems to make room for the endless strings of equations in a physics lecture.
The Cockcroft Lecture Room, part of this same site, is a much more up-to-date lecture room. Here, on 29 April 1980, scientists, guests and university dignitaries gathered in steep tiers of seats, facing a two-storey wall of chalk board and slide screen still well before the advent of PowerPoint. The occasion was the inaugural lecture of a new Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, 38-year-old mathematician and physicist Stephen William Hawking. He had been named to this illustrious chair the previous autumn.
The title announced for his lecture was a question: ‘Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?’ Hawking startled his listeners by announcing that he thought it was. He invited them to join him in a sensational escape through time and space on a quest to find the Holy Grail of science: the theory that explains the universe and everything that happens in it what some were calling the Theory of Everything.
Watching Stephen Hawking, silent in a wheelchair while one of his students read his lecture for the audience, no one unacquainted with him would have thought he was a promising choice to lead such an adventure.
Theoretical physics was for him the great escape from a prison more grim than any suggested by the Old Cavendish Labs. Beginning when he was a graduate student in his early twenties, he had lived with encroaching disability and the promise of an early death. Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankees’ first baseman, who died of it. The progress of the disease in Hawking’s case had been slow, but by the time he became Lucasian Professor he could no longer walk, write, feed himself, or raise his head if it tipped forward. His speech was slurred and almost unintelligible except to those who knew him best. For the Lucasian lecture, he had painstakingly dictated his text earlier, so that it could be read by the student.
Jane and Stephen Hawking in the 60s.
But Hawking certainly was and is no invalid. He is an active mathematician and physicist, whom some were even then calling the most brilliant since Einstein. The Lucasian Professorship is an extremely prestigious position in the University of Cambridge, dating from 1663. The second holder of the chair was Sir Isaac Newton.
It was typical of Hawking’s iconoclasm to begin this distinguished professorship by predicting the end of his own field. He said he thought there was a good chance the so-called Theory of Everything would be found before the close of the twentieth century, leaving little for theoretical physicists like himself to do.
Since that lecture, many people have come to think of Stephen Hawking as the standard bearer of the quest for that theory. However, the candidate he named for Theory of Everything was not one of his own theories but ‘N=8 supergravity’, a theory which many physicists at that time hoped might unify all the particles and the forces of nature. Hawking is quick to point out that his work is only one part of a much larger picture, involving physicists all over the world, and also part of a very old quest.
The longing to understand the universe must surely be as ancient as human consciousness. Ever since human beings first began to look at the night skies as well as at the enormous variety of nature around them, and considered their own existence, they’ve been trying to explain all this with myths, religion, and, later, mathematics and science. We may not be much nearer to understanding the complete picture than our remotest ancestors, but most of us like to think, as does Stephen Hawking, that we are.
Hawking’s life story and his science continue to be full of paradoxes. Things are often not what they seem. Pieces that should fit together refuse to do so. Beginnings may be endings; cruel circumstances can lead to happiness, although fame and success may not; two brilliant and highly successful scientific theories taken together yield nonsense; empty space isn’t empty; black holes aren’t black; the effort to unite everything in a simple explanation reveals, instead, a fragmented picture; and a man whose appearance inspires shock and pity, takes us joyfully to where the boundaries of time and space ought to be but are not.
Anywhere we look in our universe, we find that reality is astoundingly complex and elusive, sometimes alien, not always easy to take, and often impossible to predict. Beyond our universe there may be an infinite number of others. The close of the twentieth century has come and gone, and no one has discovered the Theory of Everything. Where does that leave Stephen Hawking’s prediction? Can any scientific theory truly explain it all?
“Our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in”
THE IDEA THAT all the amazing intricacy and variety we experience in the world and the cosmos may come down to something remarkably simple is not new or far-fetched. The sage Pythagoras and his followers in southern Italy in the sixth century BC studied the relationships between lengths of strings on a lyre and the musical pitches these produced, and realized that hidden behind the confusion and complexity of nature there is pattern, order, rationality. In the two and a half millennia since, our forebears have continued to find often, like the Pythagoreans, to their surprise and awe that nature is less complicated than it first appears.
Imagine, if you can, that you are a super-intelligent alien who has absolutely no experience of our universe: is there a set of rules so complete that by studying them you could discover exactly what our universe is like? Suppose someone handed you that rule book. Could it possibly be a short book?
For decades, many physicists believed that the rule book is not lengthy and contains a set of fairly simple principles, perhaps even just one principle that lies behind everything that has happened, is happening, and ever will happen in our universe. In 1980, Stephen Hawking made the brash claim that we would hold the rule book in our hands by the end of the twentieth century.
My family used to own a museum facsimile of an ancient board game. Archaeologists digging in the ruins of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia had unearthed an exquisite inlaid board with a few small carved pieces. It was obviously an elaborate game, but no one knew its rules. The makers of the facsimile had tried to deduce them from the design of the board and pieces, but those like ourselves who bought the game were encouraged to make our own decisions and discoveries about how to play it.
You can think of the universe as something like that: a magnificent, elegant, mysterious game. Certainly there are rules, but the rule book didn’t come with the game. The universe is no beautiful relic like the game found at Ur. Yes, it is old, but the game continues. We and everything we know about (and much we do not) are in the thick of the play. If there is a Theory of Everything, we and everything in the universe must be obeying its principles, even while we try to discover what they are.
You would expect the complete, unabridged rules for the universe to fill a vast library or super computer. There would be rules for how galaxies form and move, for how human bodies work and fail to work, for how humans relate to one another, for how subatomic particles interact, how water freezes, how plants grow, how dogs bark intricate rules, within rules within rules. How could anyone think this could be reduced to a few principles?
Richard Feynman, the American physicist and Nobel laureate, gave an excellent example of the way the reduction process happens. There was a time, he pointed out, when we had something we called motion and something else called heat and something else again called sound. ‘But it was soon discovered,’ wrote Feynman:
“After Sir Isaac Newton explained the laws of motion, that some of these apparently different things were aspects of the same thing. For example, the phenomena of sound could be completely understood as the motion of atoms in the air. So sound was no longer considered something in addition to motion. It was also discovered that heat phenomena are easily understandable from the laws of motion. In this way, great globs of physics theory were synthesized into a simplified theory.”
Life among the Small Pieces
All matter as we normally think of it in the universe, you and I, air, ice, stars, gases, microbes, this book, is made up of minuscule building blocks called atoms. Atoms in turn are made up of smaller objects, called particles, and a lot of empty space.
The most familiar matter particles are the electrons that orbit the nuclei of atoms and the protons and neutrons that are clustered in the nuclei. Protons and neutrons are made up of even tinier particles of matter called ‘quarks’. All matter particles belong to a class of particles called ‘fermions’, named for the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. They have a system of messages that pass among them, causing them to act and change in various ways. A group of humans might have a message system consisting of four different services: telephone, fax, e-mail and ‘snail mail’. Not all the humans would send and receive messages and influence one another by means of all four message services. You can think of the message system among the fermions as four such message services, called forces. There is another class of particles that carry these messages among the fermions, and sometimes among themselves as well: ‘messenger’ particles, more properly called ‘bosons’. Apparently every particle in the universe is either a fermion or a boson.
One of the four fundamental forces of nature is gravity. One way of thinking about the gravitational force holding us to the Earth is as ‘messages’ carried by bosons called gravitons between the particles of the atoms in your body and the particles of the atoms in the Earth, influencing these particles to draw closer to one another. Gravity is the weakest of the forces, but, as we’ll see later, it is a very long-range force and acts on everything in the universe. When it adds up, it can dominate all the other forces.
A second force, the electromagnetic force, is messages carried by bosons called photons among the protons in the nucleus of an atom, between the protons and the electrons nearby, and among electrons. The electromagnetic force causes electrons to orbit the nucleus. On the level of everyday experience, photons show up as light, heat, radio waves, microwaves and other waves, all known as electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic force is also long-range and much stronger than gravity, but it acts only on particles with an electric charge.
A third message service, the strong nuclear force, causes the nucleus of the atom to hold together.
A fourth, the weak nuclear force, causes radioactivity and plays a necessary role, in stars and in the early universe, in the formation of the elements.
The gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force, the activities of those four forces are responsible for all messages among all fermions in the universe and for all interactions among them. Without the four forces, every fermion (every particle of matter) would exist, if it existed at all, in isolation, with no means of contacting or influencing any other, oblivious to every other. To put it bluntly, whatever doesn’t happen by means of one of the four forces doesn’t happen. If that is true, a complete understanding of the forces would give us an understanding of the principles underlying everything that happens in the universe. Already we have a remarkably condensed rule book.
Much of the work of physicists in the twentieth century was aimed at learning more about how the four forces of nature operate and how they are related. In our human message system, we might discover that telephone, fax and e-mail are not really so separate after all, but can be thought of as the same thing showing up in three different ways. That discovery would ‘unify’ the three message services. In a similar way, physicists have sought, with some success, to unify the forces. They hope ultimately to find a theory which explains all four forces as one showing up in different ways, a theory that may even unite both fermions and bosons in a single family. They speak of such a theory as a unified theory.
A theory explaining the universe, the Theory of Everything, must go several steps further. Of particular interest to Stephen Hawking, it must answer the question, what was the universe like at the instant of beginning, before any time whatsoever had passed? Physicists phrase that question: what are the ‘initial conditions’ or the ‘boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe’? Because this issue of boundary conditions has been and continues to be at the heart of Hawking’s work, it behooves us to spend a little time with it.
The Boundary Challenge
Suppose you put together a layout for a model railway, then position several trains on the tracks and set the switches and throttles controlling the train speeds as you want them, all before turning on the power. You have set up boundary conditions. For this session with your train set, reality is going to begin with things in precisely this state and not in any other. Where each train will be five minutes after you turn on the power, whether any train will crash with another, depends heavily on these boundary conditions.
Imagine that when you have allowed the trains to run for ten minutes, without any interference, a friend enters the room. You switch off the power. Now you have a second set of boundary conditions: the precise position of everything in the layout at the second you switched it off. Suppose you challenge your friend to try to work out exactly where all the trains started out ten minutes earlier. There would be a host of questions besides the simple matter of where the trains are standing and how the throttles and switches are set. How quickly does each of the trains accelerate and slow down? Do certain parts of the tracks offer more resistance than others? How steep are the gradients? Is the power supply constant? Is it certain there has been nothing to interfere with the running of the train set, something no longer evident?
The whole exercise would indeed be daunting. Your friend would be in something like the position of a modern physicist trying to work out how the universe began, what were the boundary conditions at the beginning of time.
Boundary conditions in science do not apply only to the history of the universe. They simply mean the lie of the land at a particular point in time, for instance the start of an experiment in a laboratory. However, unlike the situation with the train set or a lab experiment, when considering the universe, one is often not allowed to set up boundary conditions.
One of Hawking’s favourite questions is how many ways the universe could have begun and still ended up the way we observe it today, assuming that we have correct knowledge and understanding of the laws of physics and they have not changed. He is using ‘the way we observe the universe today’ as a boundary condition and also, in a more subtle sense, using the laws of physics and the assumption that they have not changed as boundary conditions. The answer he is after is the reply to the question, what were the boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe, or the ‘initial conditions of the universe’ the exact layout at the word go, including the minimal laws that had to be in place at that moment in order to produce at a certain time in the future the universe as we know it today? It is in considering this question that he has produced some of his most interesting work and surprising answers.
A unified description of the particles and forces, and knowledge of the boundary conditions for the origin of the universe, would be a stupendous scientific achievement, but it would not be a Theory of Everything. In addition, such a theory must account for values that are ‘arbitrary elements’ in all present theories.
Arbitrary elements include such ‘constants of nature’ as the mass and charge of the electron and the velocity of light. We observe what these are, but no theory explains or predicts them. Another example: physicists know the strength of the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. The electroweak theory is a theory that unifies the two, but it cannot tell us how to calculate the difference in strength between the two forces. The difference in strength is an ‘arbitrary element’, not predicted by the theory. We know what it is from observation, and so we put it into a theory ‘by hand’. This is considered a weakness in a theory.
When scientists use the word predict, they do not mean telling the future. The question ‘Does this theory predict the speed of light?’ isn’t asking whether the theory tells us what that speed will be next Tuesday. It means, would this theory make it possible for us to work out the speed of light if it were impossible to observe what that speed is? As it happens, no present theory does predict the speed of light. It is an arbitrary element in all theories.
One of Hawking’s concerns when he wrote A Brief History of Time was that there be a clear understanding of what is meant by a theory. A theory is not Truth with a capital T, not a rule, not fact, not the final word. You might think of a theory as a toy boat. To find out whether it floats, you set it on the water. You test it. When it flounders, you pull it out of the water and make some changes, or you start again and build a different boat, benefiting from what you’ve learned from the failure.
Some theories are good boats. They float a long time. We may know there are a few leaks, but for all practical purposes they serve us well. Some serve us so well, and are so solidly supported by experiment and testing, that we begin to regard them as truth. Scientists, keeping in mind how complex and surprising our universe is, are extremely wary about calling them that. Although some theories do have a lot of experimental success to back them up and others are hardly more than a glimmer in a theorist’s eyes brilliantly designed boats that have never been tried on the water it is risky to assume that any of them is absolute, fundamental scientific ‘truth’.
It is important, however, not to dither around for ever, continuing to call into question well-established theories without having a good reason for doing so. For science to move ahead, it is necessary to decide whether some theories are dependable enough, and match observation sufficiently well, to allow us to use them as building blocks and proceed from there. Of course, some new thought or discovery might come along and threaten to sink the boat. We’ll see an example of that later in this book.
In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking wrote that a scientific theory is ‘just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that may mean)? The easiest way to understand this definition is to look at some examples.
There is a film clip showing Hawking teaching a class of graduate students, probably in the early 1980s, with the help of his graduate assistant. By this time Hawking’s ability to speak had deteriorated so seriously that it was impossible for anyone who did not know him well to understand him. In the clip, his graduate assistant interprets Hawking’s garbled speech to say, ‘Now it just so happens that we have a model of the universe here’, and places a large cardboard cylinder upright on the seminar table. Hawking frowns and mutters something that only the assistant can understand. The assistant apologetically picks up the cylinder and turns it over to stand on its other end. Hawking nods approval, to general laughter.
A ‘model’, of course, does not have to be something like a cardboard cylinder or a drawing that we can see and touch. It can be a mental picture or even a story. Mathematical equations or creation myths can be models.
Getting back to the cardboard cylinder, how does it resemble the universe? To make a full-fledged theory out of it, Hawking would have to explain how the model is related to what we actually see around us, to ‘observations’, or to what we might observe if we had better technology. However, just because someone sets a piece of cardboard on the table and tells how it is related to the actual universe does not mean anyone should accept this as the model of the universe. We are to consider it, not swallow it hook, line and sinker. It is an idea, existing ‘only in our minds’. The cardboard cylinder may turn out to be a useful model. On the other hand, some evidence may turn up to prove that it is not. We shall have found that we are part of a slightly different game from the one the model suggested we were playing. Would that mean the theory was ‘bad’? No, it may have been a very good theory, and everyone may have learned a great deal from considering it, testing it, and having to change it or discard it. The effort to shoot it down may have required innovative thinking and experiments that will lead to something more successful or pay off in other ways.
What is it then that makes a theory a good theory? Quoting Hawking again, it must ‘accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations’.
For example, Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity describes a very large class of observations. It predicts the behaviour of objects dropped or thrown on Earth, as well as planetary orbits.
It’s important to remember, however, that a good theory does not have to arise entirely from observation. A good theory can be a wild theory, a great leap of imagination. ‘The ability to make these intuitive leaps is really what characterizes a good theoretical physicist,’ says Hawking. However, a good theory should not be at odds with things already observed, unless it gives convincing reasons for seeming to be at odds.
Superstring theory, one of the most exciting current theories, predicts more than three dimensions of space, a prediction that certainly seems inconsistent with observation. Theorists explain the discrepancy by suggesting the extra dimensions are curled up so small we are unable to recognize them.
We’ve already seen what Hawking means by his second requirement, that a theory contain only a few arbitrary elements.
The final requirement, according to Hawking, is that it must suggest what to expect from future observations. It must challenge us to test it. It must tell us what we will observe if the theory is correct. It should also tell us what observations would prove that it is not correct. For example, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that beams of light from distant stars bend a certain amount as they pass massive bodies like the sun. This prediction is testable. Tests have shown Einstein was correct.
Some theories, including most of Stephen Hawking’s, are impossible to test with our present technology, perhaps even with any conceivable future technology. They are tested with mathematics. They must be mathematically consistent with what we do know and observe. But we cannot observe the universe in its earliest stages to find out directly whether his ‘no-boundary proposal’ (to be discussed later) is correct. Although some tests were proposed for proving or disproving ‘wormholes’, Hawking does not think they would succeed. But he has told us what he thinks we will find if we ever do have the technology, and he is convinced that his theories are consistent with what we have observed so far. In some cases he has risked making some very specific predictions about the results of experiments and observations that push at the boundaries of our present capabilities.
If nature is perfectly unified, then the boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe, the most fundamental particles and the forces that govern them, and the constants of nature, are interrelated in a unique and completely compatible way, which we might be able to recognize as inevitable, absolute and self-explanatory. To reach that level of understanding would indeed be to discover the Theory of Everything, of Absolutely Everything even the answer, perhaps, to the question of why does the universe fit this description to ‘know the Mind of God’, as Hawking termed it in A Brief History of Time, or ‘the Grand Design’, as he would phrase it less dramatically in a more recent book by that name.
Laying Down the Gauntlet
We are ready to list the challenges that faced any ‘Theory of Everything’ candidate when Hawking delivered his Lucasian Lecture in 1980. You’ll learn in due course how some requirements in this list have changed subtly since then.
– It must give us a model that unifies the forces and particles.
– It must answer the question, what were the ‘boundary conditions’ of the universe, the conditions at the very instant of beginning, before any time whatsoever passed?
– It must be ‘restrictive’, allowing few options. It should, for instance, predict precisely how many types of particles there are. If it leaves options, it must somehow account for the fact that we have the universe we have and not a slightly different one.
– It should contain few arbitrary elements. We would rather not have to peek too often at the actual universe for answers. Paradoxically, the Theory of Everything itself may be an arbitrary element. Few scientists expect it to explain why there should exist either a theory or anything at all for it to describe. It is not likely to answer Stephen Hawking’s question: ‘Why does the universe [or, for that matter, the Theory of Everything] go to all the bother of existing?’
– It must predict a universe like the universe we observe or else explain convincingly why there are discrepancies. If it predicts that the speed of light is ten miles per hour, or disallows penguins or pulsars, we have a problem. A Theory of Everything must find a way to survive comparison with what we observe.
– It should be simple, although it must allow for enormous complexity. The physicist John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton wrote:
“Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that when in a decade, a century, or a millennium we grasp it, we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid for so long?”
The most profound theories, such as Newton’s theory of gravity and Einstein’s relativity theories, are simple in the way Wheeler described.
– It must solve the enigma of combining Einstein’s theory of general relativity (a theory that explains gravity) with quantum mechanics (the theory we use successfully when talking about the other three forces).
This is a challenge that Stephen Hawking has taken up. We introduce the problem here. You will understand it better after reading about the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics in this chapter and about general relativity later.
Theory Meets Theory
Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the theory of the large and the very large stars, planets, galaxies, for instance. It does an excellent job of explaining how gravity works on that level.
Quantum mechanics is the theory of the very small. It describes the forces of nature as messages among fermions (matter particles). Quantum mechanics also contains something extremely frustrating, the uncertainty principle: we can never know precisely both the position of a particle and its momentum (how it is moving) at the same time. In spite of this problem, quantum mechanics does an excellent job of explaining things on the level of the very small.
One way to combine these two great twentieth century theories into one unified theory would be to explain gravity, more successfully than has been possible so far, as an exchange of messenger particles, as we do with the other three forces. Another avenue is to rethink general relativity in the light of the uncertainty principle.
Explaining gravity as an exchange of messenger particles presents problems. When you think of the force holding you to the Earth as the exchange of gravitons (messenger particles of gravity) between the matter particles in your body and the matter particles that make up the Earth, you are describing the gravitational force in a quantum-mechanical way. But because all these gravitons are also exchanging gravitons among themselves, mathematically this is a messy business. We get infinities, mathematical nonsense.
Physical theories cannot really handle infinities. When they have appeared in other theories, theorists have resorted to something known as ‘renormalization’. Richard Feynman used renormalization when he developed a theory to explain the electromagnetic force, but he was far from pleased about it. ‘No matter how clever the word,’ he wrote, ‘it is what I would call a dippy process!’ It involves putting in other infinities and letting the infinities cancel each other out. It does sound dubious, but in many cases it seems to work in practice. The resulting theories agree with observation remarkably well.
Renormalization works in the case of electromagnetism, but it fails in the case of gravity. The infinities in the gravitational force are of a much nastier breed than those in the electromagnetic force. They refuse to go away. Supergravity, the theory Hawking spoke about in his Lucasian lecture, and superstring theory, in which the basic objects in the universe are not pointlike particles but tiny strings or loops of string, began to make promising inroads in the twentieth century; and later in this book we shall be looking at even more promising recent developments. But the problem is not completely solved.
On the other hand, what if we allow quantum mechanics to invade the study of the very large, the realm where gravity seems to reign supreme? What happens when we rethink what general relativity tells us about gravity in the light of what we know about the uncertainty principle, the principle that you can’t measure accurately the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time? Hawking’s work along these lines has had bizarre results: black holes aren’t black, and the boundary conditions may be that there are no boundaries.
While we are listing paradoxes, here’s another: empty space isn’t empty. Later in this book we’ll discuss how we arrive at that conclusion. For now be content to know that the uncertainty principle means that so-called empty space teems with particles and antiparticles. (The matter-antimatter used in science fiction is a familiar example.)
General relativity tells us that the presence of matter or energy makes spacetime curve, or warp. We’ve already mentioned one result of that curvature: the bending of light beams from distant stars as they pass a massive body like the sun.
Keep those two points in mind: (1) ‘Empty’ space is filled with particles and antiparticles, adding up to an enormous amount of energy. (2) The presence of this energy causes curvature of spacetime.
If both are true the entire universe ought to be curled up into a small ball. This hasn’t happened. When general relativity and quantum mechanics work together, what they predict seems to be dead wrong. Both general relativity and quantum mechanics are exceptionally good theories, two of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. They serve us magnificently not only for theoretical purposes but in many practical ways. Nevertheless, put together they yield infinities and nonsense. The Theory of Everything must somehow resolve that nonsense.
Predicting the Details
Once again imagine that you are an alien who has never seen our universe. With the Theory of Everything you ought nevertheless to be able to predict everything about it right? It’s possible you can predict suns and planets and galaxies and black holes and quasars but can you predict next year’s Derby winner? How specific can you be? Not very. The calculations necessary to study all the data in the universe are ludicrously far beyond the capacity of any imaginable computer. Hawking points out that although we can solve the equations for the movement of two bodies in Newton’s theory of gravity, we can’t solve them exactly for three bodies, not because Newton’s theory doesn’t work for three bodies but because the maths is too complicated. The real universe, needless to say, has more than three bodies in it.
Nor can we predict our health, although we understand the principles that underlie medicine, the principles of chemistry and biology, extremely well. The problem again is that there are too many billions upon billions of details in a real-life system, even when that system is just one human body.
With the Theory of Everything in our hands we’d still be a staggeringly long way from predicting everything. Even if the underlying principles are simple and well understood, the way they work out is enormously complicated. ‘A minute to learn, the lifetime of the universe to master’, to paraphrase an advertising slogan. ‘Lifetime of the universe to master’ is a gross understatement.”
Where does that leave us? What horse will win the Grand National next year is predictable with the Theory of Everything, but no computer can hold all the data or do the maths to make the prediction. Is that correct?
There’s a further problem. We must look again at the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.
The Fuzziness of the Very Small
At the level of the very small, the quantum level of the universe, the uncertainty principle also limits our ability to predict.
Think of all those odd, busy inhabitants of the quantum world, both fermions and bosons. They’re an impressive zoo of particles. Among the fermions there are electrons, protons and neutrons. Each proton or neutron is, in turn, made up of three quarks, which are also fermions. Then we have the bosons: photons (messengers of the electromagnetic force), gravitons (the gravitational force), gluons (the strong force), and Ws and Zs (the weak force). It would be helpful to know where all these and many others are, where they are going, and how quickly they are getting there. Is it possible to find out?
The diagram of an atom (fig 2.1) is the model proposed by New Zealander Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge early in the twentieth century. It shows electrons orbiting the nucleus of the atom as planets orbit the sun. We now know that things never really look like this on the quantum level. The orbits of electrons cannot be plotted as though electrons were planets. We do better to picture them swarming in a cloud around the nucleus. Why the blur?
The uncertainty principle makes life at the quantum level a fuzzy, imprecise affair, not only for electrons but for all the particles.
Regardless of how we go about trying to observe what happens, it is impossible to find out precisely both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time. The more accurately we measure how the particle is moving, the less accurately we know its position, and vice versa.
It works like a seesaw: when the accuracy of one measurement goes up, the accuracy of the other must go down. We pin down one measurement only by allowing the other to become more uncertain.
The best way to describe the activity of a particle is to study all the possible ways it might be moving and then calculate how likely one way is as opposed to another. It becomes a matter of probabilities. A particle has this probability to be moving that way or it has that probability to be here. Those probabilities are nevertheless very useful information.
It’s a little like predicting the outcome of elections. Election poll experts work with probabilities. When they deal with large enough numbers of voters, they come up with statistics that allow them to predict who will win the election and by what margin, without having to know how each individual will vote. When quantum physicists study a large number of possible paths that particles might follow, the probabilities of their moving thus and so or of being in one place rather than another become concrete information.
Pollsters admit that interviewing an individual can influence a vote by causing the voter to become more aware of issues. Physicists have a similar dilemma. Probing the quantum level influences the answers they find.
Thus far the comparison between predicting elections and studying the quantum level seems a good one. Now it breaks down: on election day, each voter does cast a definite vote one way or another, secret perhaps but not uncertain. lf pollsters placed hidden cameras in voting booths and were not arrested they could find out how each individual voted. It is not like that in quantum physics. Physicists have devised ingenious ways of sneaking up on particles, all to no avail. The world of elementary particles does not just seem uncertain because we haven’t been clever enough to find a successful way to observe it. It really is uncertain. No wonder Hawking, in his Lucasian lecture, called quantum mechanics ‘a theory of what we do not know and cannot predict’.
Taking this limitation into account, physicists have redefined the goal of science: the Theory of Everything will be a set of laws that make it possible to predict events up to the limit set by the uncertainty principle, and that means in many cases satisfying ourselves with statistical probabilities, not specifics.
Hawking sums up our problem. In answer to the question of whether everything is predetermined either by the Theory of Everything or by God, he says yes, he thinks it is. ‘But it might as well not be, because we can never know what is determined. If the theory has determined that we shall die by hanging, then we shall not drown. But you would have to be awfully sure that you were destined for the gallows to put to sea in a small boat during a storm.’ He regards the idea of free will as ‘a very good approximate theory of human behaviour’.
Is There Really a Theory of Everything?
Not all physicists believe there is a Theory of Everything, or, if there is, that it is possible for anyone to find it. Science may go on refining what we know by making discovery after discovery, opening boxes within boxes but never arriving at the ultimate box. Others argue that events are not entirely predictable but happen in a random fashion. Some believe God and human beings have far more freedom of give and-take within this creation than a deterministic Theory of Everything would allow. They believe that as in the performance of a great piece of orchestral music, though the notes are written down, there may yet be enormous creativity in the playing of the notes that is not at all predetermined.
Whether a complete theory to explain the universe is within our reach or ever will be, there are those among us who want to make a try. Humans are intrepid beings with insatiable curiosity. Some, like Stephen Hawking, are particularly hard to discourage. One spokesman for those who are engaged in this science, Murray Gell-Mann, described the quest:
“It is the most persistent and greatest adventure in human history, this search to understand the universe, how it works and where it came from. It is difficult to imagine that a handful of residents of a small planet circling an insignificant star in a small galaxy have as their aim a complete understanding of the entire universe, a small speck of creation truly believing it is capable of comprehending the whole.”
The advertising slogan for the game Othello is ‘A minute to learn, a lifetime to master’.
‘Equal to anything!’
WHEN STEPHEN HAWKING was twelve years old, two of his schoolmates made a bet about his future. John McClenahan bet that Stephen ‘would never come to anything’; Basil King, that he would ‘turn out to be unusually capable’. The stake was a bag of sweets.
Young S. W. Hawking was no prodigy. Some reports claim he was brilliant in a haphazard way, but Hawking remembers that he was just another ordinary English schoolboy, slow learning to read, his handwriting the despair of his teachers. He ranked no more than halfway up in his school class, though he now says, in his defence, ‘It was a very bright class.’ Maybe someone might have predicted a career in science or engineering from the fact that Stephen was intensely interested in learning the secrets of how things such as clocks and radios work. He took them apart to find out, but he could seldom put them back together. Stephen was never well coordinated physically, and he was not keen on sports or other physical activities. He was almost always the last to be chosen for any sports team.
John McClenahan had good reason to think he would win the wager.
Basil King probably was just being a loyal friend or liked betting on long shots. Maybe he did see things about Stephen that teachers, parents and Stephen himself couldn’t see. He hasn’t claimed his bag of sweets, but it’s time he did. Because Stephen Hawking, after such an unexceptional beginning, is now one of the intellectual giants of our modern world and among its most heroic figures. How such transformations happen is a mystery that biographical details alone cannot explain. Hawking would have it that he is still ‘just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these how and why questions. Occasionally I find an answer.’
1942 – 1959
Stephen William Hawking was born during the Second World War, on 8 January 1942, in Oxford. It was a winter of discouragement and fear, not a happy time to be born. Hawking likes to recall that his birth was exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo, who is called the father of modern science. But few people in January 1942 were thinking about Galileo.
Stephen’s parents, Frank and Isobel Hawking, were not wealthy. Frank’s very prosperous Yorkshire grandfather had over-extended himself buying farm land and then gone bankrupt in the great agricultural depression of the early twentieth century. His resilient wife, Frank’s grandmother and Stephen’s great-grandmother, saved the family from complete ruin by opening a school in their home. Her ability and willingness to take this unusual step are evidence that reading and education must already have been a high priority in the family.
Isobel, Stephen’s mother, was the second oldest of seven children. Her father was a family doctor in Glasgow. When lsobel was twelve, they moved to Devon.
It wasn’t easy for either family to scrape together money to send a child to Oxford, but in both cases they did. Taking on a financial burden of this magnitude was especially unusual in the case of lsobel’s parents, for few women went to university in the 1930s. Though Oxford had been admitting female students since 1878, it was only in 1920 that the university had begun granting degrees to women. Isobel’s studies ranged over an unusually wide curriculum in a university where students tended to be much more specialized than in an American liberal arts college or university. She studied philosophy, politics and economics.
Stephen’s father Frank was a meticulous, determined young man who kept a journal every day from the age of fourteen and would continue it until the end of his life. He was at Oxford earlier than Isobel, studying medical science with a speciality in tropical medicine. When the Second World War broke out he was in East Africa doing field research, and he intrepidly found his way overland to take ship for England and volunteer for militaw service. He was assigned instead to medical research.
Isobel held several jobs after graduation from Oxford, all of them beneath her ability and credentials as a university graduate. One was as an inspector of taxes. She so loathed it that she gave it up in disgust to become a secretary at a medical institute in Hampstead. There she met Frank Hawking. They were married in the early years of the war.
In January 1942 the Hawkings were living in Highgate, north London. In the London area hardly a night passed without air raids, and Frank and Isobel Hawking decided Isobel should go to Oxford to give birth to their baby in safety. Germany was not bombing Oxford or Cambridge, the two great English university towns, reputedly in return for a British promise not to bomb Heidelberg and Gottingen. In Oxford, the city familiar from her recent university days, Isobel spent the final week of her pregnancy first in a hotel and then, as the birth grew imminent and the hotel grew nervous, in hospital, but she was still able to go out for walks to fill her time. On one of those leisurely winter days, she happened into a bookshop and, with a book token, bought an astronomical atlas. She would later regard this as a rather prophetic purchase.
Not long after Stephen’s birth on 8 January his parents took him back to Highgate. Their home survived the war, although a V-2 rocket hit a few doors away when the Hawkings were absent, blowing out the back windows of their house and leaving glass shards sticking out of the opposite wall like little daggers. It had been a good moment to be somewhere else.
After the war the family lived in Highgate until 1950. Stephen’s sister Mary was born there in 1943 (when Stephen was less than two years old), and a second daughter, Philippa, arrived in 1946. The family would adopt another son, Edward, in 1955, when Stephen was a teenager. ln Highgate Stephen attended the Byron House School, whose ‘progressive methods’ he would later blame for his not learning to read until after he left there.
When Dr Frank Hawking, beginning to be recognized as a brilliant leader in his field, became head of the Division of Parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, the family moved to St Albans.
Eccentric in St Albans
The Hawkings were a close family. Their home was full of good books and good music, often reverberating with the operas of Richard Wagner played at high volume on the record player. Frank and Isobel Hawking believed strongly in the value of education, a good bit of it occurring at home. Frank gave his children a grounding in, among other things, astronomy and surveying, and Isobel took them often to the museums in South Kensington, where each child had a favourite museum and none had the slightest interest in the others’ favourites. She would leave Stephen in the Science Museum and Mary in the Natural History Museum, and then stay with Philippa too young to be left alone at the Victoria and Albert. After a while she would collect them all again.
In St Albans the Hawkings were regarded as a highly intelligent, eccentric family. Their love of books extended to such compulsive reading habits that Stephen’s friends found it odd and a little rude of his family to sit at the dining table, uncommunicative, their noses buried in their books. Reports that the family car was a used hearse are false. For many years the Hawkings drove around in a succession of used London taxis of the black, boxlike sort. This set them apart not only because of the nature of the vehicle, but also because after the war cars of any kind were not easily available. Only families who were fairly wealthy had them at all. Frank Hawking installed a table in the back of the taxi, between the usual bench seat and the fold-down seats, so that Stephen and his siblings could play cards and games. The car and the game table were put to especially good use getting to their usual holiday location, a painted gypsy caravan and an enormous army tent set up in a field at Osmington Mills, in Dorset. The Hawking campsite was only a hundred yards from the beach. It was a rocky beach, not sand, but it was an interesting part of the coast smuggler territory in a past age.
In the post-war years it was not unusual for families to live frugally with few luxuries, unable to afford home repairs, and, out of generosity or financial constraint, house more than two generations under one roof. But the Hawkings, though their house in St Albans was larger than many British homes, carried frugality and disrepair to an extreme. In this three storey, strangely put together redbrick dwelling, Frank kept bees in the cellar, and Stephen’s Scottish grandmother lived in the attic, emerging regularly to play the piano spectacularly well for local folk dances. The house was in dire need of work when the Hawkings moved in, and it stayed that way. According to Stephen’s adopted younger brother Edward, ‘It was a very large, dark house really rather spooky, rather like a nightmare.’ The leaded stained glass at the front door must originally have been beautiful but was missing pieces. The front hall was lit only by a single bulb and its fine authentic William Morris wall covering had darkened. A greenhouse behind the rotting porch lost panes whenever there was a wind. There was no central heating, the carpeting was sparse, broken windows were not replaced. The books, packed two deep on shelves all over the house, added a modicum of insulation.
Frank Hawking would brook no complaints. One had only to put on more clothes in winter, he insisted. Frank himself was often away on research trips to Africa during the coldest months. Stephen’s sister Mary recalls thinking that fathers were ‘like migratory birds. They were there for Christmas and then they vanished until the weather got warm.’ She thought that fathers of her friends who didn’t disappear were ‘a bit odd’.
The house lent itself to imaginative escapades. Stephen and Mary competed in finding ways to get in, some of them so secret that Mary was never able to discover more than ten of the eleven that Stephen managed to use. As if one such house were not enough, Stephen had another imaginary one in an imaginary place he called Drane. It seemed he did not know where this was, only that it existed. His mother became a little frantic, so determined was he to take a bus to find it, but later, when they visited Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath, she heard him declare that this was it, the house he had seen in a dream.
‘Hawkingese’ was the name Stephen’s friends gave the Hawking ‘family dialect’. Frank Hawking himself had a stutter and Stephen and his siblings spoke so rapidly at home that they also stumbled over their words and invented their own oral short hand. That did not prevent Stephen from being, according to his mother, ‘always extremely conversational’. He was also ‘very imaginative loved music and acting in plays’, also ‘rather lazy’ but ‘a self-educator from the start like a bit of blotting paper, soaking it all up’. Part of the reason for his lack of distinction in school was that he could not be bothered with things he already knew or decided he had no need to know.
Stephen had a rather commanding nature in spite of being smaller than most of his classmates. He was well organized and capable of getting other people organized. He was also known as something of a comedian. Getting knocked around by larger boys didn’t bother him much, but he had his limits, and he could, when driven to it, turn rather fierce and daunting. His friend Simon Humphrey had a heftier build than Stephen, but Simon’s mother recalled that it was Stephen, not Simon, who on one memorable occasion swung around with his fists clenched to confront the much larger bullies who were teasing them. ‘That’s the sort of thing he did he was equal to anything.’
The eight year old Stephen’s first school in St Albans was the High School for Girls, curiously named since its students included young children well below ‘high school’ age, and its Michael House admitted boys. A seven year old named Jane Wilde, in a class somewhat younger than Stephen’s, noticed the boy with ‘floppy golden brown hair’ as he sat ‘by the wall in the next door classroom’, but she didn’t meet him. She would later become his wife.
Stephen attended that school for only a few months, until Frank needed to stay in Africa longer than usual and Isobel accepted an invitation to take the children for four months to Majorca, off the east coast of Spain. Balmy, beautiful Majorca, the home of lsobel’s friend from her Oxford days, Beryl, and Beryl’s husband, the poet Robert Graves, was an enchanting place to spend the winter. Education was not entirely neglected for there was a tutor for Stephen and the Graveses’ son William.
Back in St Albans after this idyllic hiatus, Stephen went for one year to Radlett, a private school, and then did well enough in his tests to qualify for a place at the more selective St Albans School, also a private school, in the shadow of the Cathedral. Though in his first year at St Albans he managed to rank no better than an astonishing third from the bottom of his class, his teachers were beginning to perceive that he was more intelligent than he was demonstrating in the classroom. His friends dubbed him ‘Einstein’, either because he seemed more intelligent than they or because they thought he was eccentric. Probably both. His friend Michael Church remembers that he had a sort of ‘overarching arrogance some overarching sense of what the world was about’.
‘Einstein’ soon rose in ranking to about the middle of the class. He even won the Divinity prize one year. From Stephen’s earliest childhood, his father had read him stories from the Bible. ‘He was quite well versed in religious things,’ Isobel later told an interviewer. The family often enjoyed having theological debates, arguing quite happily for and against the existence of God.
Undeterred by a low class placing, ever since the age of eight or nine Stephen had been thinking more and more seriously about becoming a scientist. He was addicted to questioning how things worked and trying to find out. It seemed to him that in science he could find out the truth, not only about clocks and radios but also about everything else around him. His parents planned that at thirteen he would go to Westminster School. Frank Hawking thought his own advancement had suffered because of his parents’ poverty and the fact that he had not attended a prestigious school. Others with less ability but higher social standing had get ahead of him, or so he felt. Stephen was to have something better.
The Hawkings could not afford Westminster unless Stephen won a scholarship. Unfortunately, he was prone at this age to recurring bouts of a low fever, diagnosed as glandular fever, that sometimes was serious enough to keep him home from school in bed. As bad luck would have it, he was ill at the time of the scholarship examination. Frank’s hopes were dashed and Stephen continued at St Albans School, but he believes his education there was at least as good as the one he would have received at Westminster.
Stephen, age 14.
After the Hawkings adopted Edward in 1955, Stephen was no longer the only male sibling. Stephen accepted his new younger brother in good grace. He was, according to Stephen, ‘probably good for us. He was a rather difficult child, but one couldn’t help liking him.’
Continuing at St Albans School rather than heading off to Westminster had one distinct advantage. It meant being able to continue growing up in a little band of close friends who shared with Stephen such interests as the hazardous manufacture of fireworks in the dilapidated greenhouse and inventing board games of astounding complexity, and who relished long discussions on a wide range of subjects. Their game ‘Risk’ involved railways, factories, manufacturing, and its own stock exchange, and took days of concentrated play to finish. A feudal game had dynasties and elaborate family trees. According to Michael Church, there was something that particularly intrigued Stephen about conjuring up these worlds and setting down the laws that governed them. John McClenahan’s father had a workshop where he allowed John and Stephen to construct model aeroplanes and boats, and Stephen later remarked that he liked ‘to build working models that I could control. Since I began my Ph.D., this need has been met by my research into cosmology. If you understand how the universe operates, you control it in a way.’ In a sense, Hawking’s grown-up models of the universe stand in relation to the ‘real’ universe in the same way his childhood model aeroplanes and boats stood in relation to real aeroplanes and boats. They give an agreeable, comforting feeling of control while, in actuality, representing no control at all.
Stephen was fifteen when he learned that the universe was expanding. This shook him. ‘I was sure there must be some mistake,’ he says. ‘A static universe seemed so much more natural. It could have existed and could continue to exist for ever. But an expanding universe would change with time. If it continued to expand, it would become virtually empty. That was disturbing.
Like many other teenagers of their generation, Stephen and his friends became fascinated with extrasensory perception (ESP). They tried to dictate the throw of dice with their minds. However, Stephen’s interest turned to disgust when he attended a lecture by someone who had investigated famous ESP studies at Duke University in the United States. The lecturer told his audience that whenever the experiments got results, the experimental techniques were faulty, and whenever the experimental techniques were not faulty, they got no results. Stephen concluded that ESP was a fraud. His scepticism about claims for psychic phenomena has not changed. To his way of thinking, people who believe such claims are stalled at the level where he was at the age of fifteen.
Ancestor of ‘Cosmos’
Probably the best of all the little group’s adventures and achievements and one that captured the attention and admiration of the entire town of St Albans was building a computer that they called LUCE (Logical Uniselector Computing Engine). Cobbled together out of recycled pieces of clocks and other mechanical and electrical items, including an old telephone switchboard, LUCE could perform simple mathematical functions. Unfortunately that teenage masterpiece no longer exists. Whatever remained of it was thrown away eventually when a new head of computing at St Albans went on a cleaning spree.
The most advanced version of LUCE was the product of Stephen’s and his friends’ final years of school before university. They were having to make hard choices about the future. Frank Hawking encouraged his son to follow him into medicine. Stephen’s sister Mary would do that, but Stephen found biology too imprecise to suit him. Biologists, he thought, observed and described things but didn’t explain them on a fundamental level. Biology also involved detailed drawings, and he wasn’t good at drawing. He wanted a subject in which he could look for exact answers and get to the root of things. If he’d known about molecular biology, his career might have been very different. At fourteen, particularly inspired by a teacher named Mr Tahta, he had decided that what he wanted to do was ‘mathematics, more mathematics, and physics’.
Stephen’s father insisted this was impractical. What jobs were there for mathematicians other than teaching? Moreover he wanted Stephen to attend his own college, University College, Oxford, and at ‘Univ’ one could not read mathematics. Stephen followed his father’s advice and began boning up on chemistry, physics and only a little maths, in preparation for entrance to Oxford. He would apply to Univ to study mainly physics and chemistry.
In 1959, during Stephen’s last year before leaving home for university, his mother Isobel and the three younger children accompanied Frank when he journeyed to India for an unusually lengthy research project. Stephen stayed in St Albans and lived for the year with the family of his friend Simon Humphrey. He continued to spend a great deal of time improving LUCE, though Dr Humphrey interrupted regularly to insist he write letters to his family something Stephen on his own would have happily neglected. But the main task of that year had to be studying for scholarship examinations coming up in March. It was essential that Stephen perform extremely well in these examinations if there was to be even an outside chance of Oxford’s accepting him.
Students who rank no higher than halfway up in their school class seldom get into Oxford unless someone pulls strings behind the scenes. Stephen’s lacklustre performance in school gave Frank Hawking plenty of cause to think he had better begin pulling strings. Stephen’s headmaster at St Albans also had his doubts about Stephen’s chances of acceptance and a scholarship, and he suggested Stephen might wait another year. He was young to be applying to university. The two other boys planning to take the exams with him were a year older. However, both headmaster and father had underestimated Stephen’s intelligence and knowledge, and his capacity to rise to a challenge. He achieved nearly perfect marks in the physics section of the entrance examinations. His interview at Oxford with the Master of University College and the physics tutor, Dr Robert Berman, went so well there was no question but that he would be accepted to read physics and be given a scholarship. A triumphant Stephen joined his family in India for the end of their stay.
Not a Grey Man
In October 1959, aged seventeen, Hawking went up to Oxford to enter University College, his father’s college. ‘Univ’ is in the heart of Oxford, on the High Street. Founded in 1249, it is the oldest of the many colleges that together make up the University. Stephen would study natural science, with an emphasis on physics. By this time he had come to consider mathematics not as a subject to be studied for itself but as a tool for doing physics and learning how the universe behaves. He would later regret that he had not exerted more effort mastering that tool.
Oxford’s architecture, like Cambridge’s, is a magnificent hodge-podge of every style since the Middle Ages. Its intellectual and social traditions predate even its buildings and, like those of any great university, are a mix of authentic intellectual brilliance, pretentious fakery, innocent tomfoolery and true decadence. For a young man interested in any of these, Stephen’s new environment had much to offer. Nevertheless, for about a year and a half, he was lonely and bored. Many students in his year were considerably older than he, not only because he had sat his examinations early but because others had taken time off for national service. He was not inspired to relieve his boredom by exerting himself academically. He had discovered he could get by better than most by doing virtually no studying at all.
Contrary to their reputation, Oxford tutorials are often not one-to-one but two or three students with one tutor. A young man named Gordon Berry became Hawking’s tutorial partner. They were two of only four physics students who entered Univ that Michaelmas (autumn) term of 1959. This small group of newcomers Berry, Hawking, Richard Bryan and Derek Powney spent most of their time together, somewhat isolated from the rest of the College.
It wasn’t until he was halfway through his second year that Stephen began enjoying Oxford. When Robert Berman describes him, it’s difficult to believe he’s speaking of the same Stephen Hawking who seemed so ordinary a few years earlier and so bored the previous year. ‘He did, I think, positively make an effort to sort of come down to the other students’ level and you know, be one of the boys. If you didn’t know about his physics and to some extent his mathematical ability, he wouldn’t have told you He was very popular.’ Others who remember Stephen in his second and third years at Oxford describe him as lively, buoyant and adaptable. He wore his hair long, was famous for his wit, and liked classical music and science fiction.
The attitude among most Oxford students in those days, Hawking remembers, was ‘very antiwork’: ‘You were supposed either to be brilliant without effort, or to accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a grey man, the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary.’ Stephen’s freewheeling, independent spirit and casual attitude towards his studies fitted right in. In a typical incident one day in a tutorial, after reading a solution he had worked out, he crumpled up the paper disdainfully and propelled it across the room into the wastepaper basket.
The physics curriculum, at least for someone with Hawking’s abilities, could be navigated successfully without rising above this blasé approach. Hawking described it as ‘ridiculously easy. You could get through without going to any lectures, just by going to one or two tutorials a week. You didn’t need to remember many facts, just a few equations.’ You could also, it seems, get through without spending very much time doing experiments in the laboratory. Gordon and he found ways to use shortcuts in taking data and fake parts of the experiments. ‘We just didn’t apply ourselves,’ remembers Berry. ‘And Steve was right down there in not applying himself.
Derek Powney tells the story of the four of them receiving an assignment having to do with electricity and magnetism. There were thirteen questions, and their tutor, Dr Berman, told them to finish as many as they could in the week before the next tutorial. At the end of the week Richard Bryan and Derek had managed to solve one and a half of the problems; Gordon only one. Stephen had not yet begun. On the day of the tutorial Stephen missed three morning lectures in order to work on the questions, and his friends thought he was about to get his comeuppance. His bleak announcement when he joined them at noon was that he had been able to solve only ten. At first they thought he was joking, until they realized he had done ten. Derek’s comment was that this was the moment Stephen’s friends recognized ‘that it was not just that we weren’t in the same street, we weren’t on the same planet’. ‘Even in Oxford, we must all have been remarkably stupid by his standards.’
His friends were not the only ones who sometimes found his intelligence impressive. Dr Berman and other dons were also beginning to recognize that Hawking had a brilliant mind, ‘completely different from his contemporaries’. ‘Undergraduate physics was simply not a challenge for him. He did very little work, really, because anything that was do-able he could do. It was only necessary for him to know something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it. Whether he had any books I don’t know, but he didn’t have very many, and he didn’t take notes. ‘l’m not conceited enough to think that I ever taught him anything.’ Another tutor called him the kind of student who liked finding mistakes in the textbooks better than working out the problems.
The Oxford physics course was scheduled in a way that made it easy not to see much urgent need for work. It was a three year course with no exams until the end of the third year. Hawking calculates he spent on the average about one hour per day studying: about one thousand hours in three years. ‘l’m not proud of this lack of work,’ he says. ‘l’m just describing my attitude at the time, which I shared with most of my fellow students: an attitude of complete boredom and feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for. One result of my illness has been to change all that: when you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.’
One major explanation why Stephen’s spirits improved dramatically in the middle of his second year was that he and Gordon Berry joined the college Boat Club. Neither of them was a hefty hunk of the sort who make the best rowers. But both were light, wiry, intelligent and quick, with strong, commanding voices, and these are the attributes that college boat clubs look for when recruiting a coxswain (cox) the person who sits looking forward, facing the line of four or eight rowers, and steers the boat with handles attached to the rudder. The position of cox is definitely a position of control, something that Hawking has said appealed to him with model boats, aeroplanes and universes, a man of slight build commanding eight muscle-men.
Stephen exerted himself far more on the river, rowing and coxing for Univ, than he did at his studies. One sure way to be part of the ‘in’ crowd at Oxford was to be a member of your college rowing team. If intense boredom and a feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for were the prevailing attitudes elsewhere, all that changed on the river. Rowers, coxes and coaches regularly assembled at the boathouse at dawn, even when there was a crust of ice on the river, to perform arduous calisthenics and lift the racing shell into the water. The merciless practice went on in all weather, up and down the river, coaches bicycling along the towpath exhorting their crews. On race days emotions ran high and crowds of rowdy well-wishers sprinted along the banks of the river to keep up with their college boats. There were foggy race days when boats appeared and vanished like ghosts, and drenching race days when water filled the bottom of the boat. Boat club dinners in formal dress in the college hall lasted late and ended in battles of winesoaked linen napkins.
All of it added up to a stupendous feeling of physical well-being, camaraderie, all-stops-out effort, and of living college life to the hilt. Stephen became a popular member of the boating crowd. At the level of intercollege competition he did well. He’d never before been good at a sport, and this was an exhilarating change. The College Boatsman of that era, Norman Dix, remembered him as an ‘adventurous type; you never knew quite what he was going to do’. Broken cars and damaged boats were not uncommon as Stephen steered tight corners and attempted to take advantage of narrow manoeuvring opportunities that other coxes avoided.
At the end of the third year, however, examinations suddenly loomed larger than any boat race. Hawking almost floundered. He’d settled on theoretical physics as his speciality. That meant a choice between two areas for graduate work: cosmology, the study of the very large; or elementary particles, the study of the very small. Hawking chose cosmology. ‘It just seemed that cosmology was more exciting, because it really did seem to involve the big question: Where did the universe come from?’
Fred Hoyle, the most distinguished British astronomer of his time, was at Cambridge. Stephen had become particularly enthusiastic about the idea of working with Hoyle when he took a summer course with one of Hoyle’s most outstanding graduate students, Jayant Narlikar. Stephen applied to do Ph.D. research at Cambridge and was accepted with the condition that he get a First from Oxford.
One thousand hours of study was meagre preparation for getting a First. However, an Oxford examination offers a choice from many questions and problems. Stephen was confident he could get through successfully by doing problems in theoretical physics and avoiding any questions that required knowledge of facts. As the examination day approached, his confidence faltered. He decided, as a fail-safe, to take the Civil Service exams and apply for a job with the Ministry of Works.
The night before his Oxford examinations Stephen was too nervous to sleep. The examination went poorly. He was to take the Civil Service exams the next morning, but he overslept and missed them. Now everything hung on his Oxford results.
As Stephen and his friends waited on tenterhooks for their results to be posted, only Gordon was confident he had done well in his examinations well enough for a First, he believed. Gordon was wrong. He and Derek received Seconds, Richard a disappointing Third. Stephen ended up disastrously on the borderline between a First and a Second.
Faced with a borderline result, the examiners summoned Hawking for a personal interview, a ‘viva’. They questioned him about his plans. In spite of the tenseness of the situation, with his future hanging in the balance, Stephen managed to come up with the kind of remark for which he was famous among his friends: ‘If I get a First, I shall go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I will remain at Oxford. So I expect that you will give me a First.’ He got his First. Dr Berman said of the examiners: ‘They were intelligent enough to realize they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves.’
That triumph notwithstanding, all was not well. Hawking’s adventures as a cox, his popularity, and his angst about his exams had pushed into the background a problem that he had first begun to notice that year and that refused to go away. ‘I seemed to be getting more clumsy, and I fell over once or twice for no apparent reason,’ he remembers. The problem had even invaded his halcyon existence on the river when he began to have difficulty sculling (rowing a one-man boat). During his final Oxford term, he tumbled down the stairs and landed on his head. His friends spent several hours helping him overcome a temporary loss of shortand long-term memory, insisted he go to a doctor to make sure no serious damage had been done, and encouraged him to take a Mensa intelligence test to prove to them and to himself that his mind was not affected. All seemed well, but they found it difficult to believe that his fall had been a simple accident.
There was indeed something amiss, though not as a result of his tumble and not with his mind. That summer, on a trip he and a friend took to Persia (now Iran), he became seriously ill, probably from a tourist stomach problem or a reaction to the vaccines required for the trip. It was a harrowing journey in other ways, more harrowing for his family back home than for Stephen. They lost touch with him for three weeks, during which time there was a serious earthquake in the area where he was travel ling. Stephen, as it turned out, had been so ill and riding on such a bumpy bus that he didn’t notice the earthquake at all.
He finally got back home, depleted and unwell. Later there would be speculation about whether a non-sterile smallpox vaccination prior to the trip had caused his illness in Persia and also his ALS, but the latter had, in fact, begun earlier. Nevertheless, because of his illness in Persia and the increasingly troubling symptoms he was experiencing, Stephen arrived at Cambridge a more unsettled and weaker twenty-year-old than he had been at Oxford the previous spring. He moved into Trinity Hall for the Michaelmas term in the autumn of 1962.
During the summer before Stephen left for Cambridge, Jane Wilde saw him while she was out walking with her friends in St Albans. He was a ‘young man with an awkward gait, his head down, his face shielded from the world under an unruly mass of straight brown hair immersed in his own thoughts, looking neither right nor left lolloping along in the opposite direction’. Jane’s friend Diana King, sister of Stephen’s friend Basil King, astonished her friends by telling them that she had gone out with him. ‘He’s strange but very clever. He took me to the theatre once. He goes on Ban the Bomb marches.“
Stephen Hawking. His Life And Work
by Kitty Ferguson
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