Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Hawking": The famous physicist tells his own story in a fascinating autobiography


Stephen Hawking’s own autobiography, titled simply “Hawking”, as filmed by Stephen Finnigan and aired by PBS in 2013, is quite stunning, with the candor of Hawking’s own words recounting his entire life up to now (he is 72) and a great deal of actual footage from his young adulthood, augmented by lively animation showing his cosmological theories. This is a good film to watch on Netflix now, following “Interstellar” and the anticipated “Theory of Everything” due in December.
  
Hawking grew up in an academic family that encouraged critical thinking.  The family was willing to discuss social issues often considered off the table in the 1950s.  Academic smarts came with a degree of privilege that, in comparable situations in my own life, became off-putting.  There was an attitude that if you were smart enough, you really shouldn’t have to work.  That doesn’t fly too well in my world. He entered college at Oxford at 17 and actually adjusted socially pretty well after a time, joining the rowing team.  But in his last year he developed a startling clumsiness, falling down the stairs once and forgetting who he was for a day.  His symptoms worsened in his first year of doctoral studies, and a medical evaluation in Christmas 1962 diagnosed ALS (or “motor neuron disease”) resulted in his being given two years to live.  He certainly beat those odds.
  
He got married, and his physical deterioration slowed somewhat, and he maintained the ability to speak and function somewhat until the early 1970s.  He developed his theories regarding the big bang, which would say that the universe had no predecessor.  He also developed mathematics that suggests that black holes can actually evaporate and emit “Hawking radiation” (containing information), an idea that is important to Christopher Nolan’s film mentioned above.  He spent a year living in southern California and teaching at Cal Tech.  
  
After pneumonia in the 1970s, he was intubated and unable to speak, but computers were developed to enable him to communicate.  He would actually remarry, a nurse in 1995.  Today, he does need constant attention, and the film about Roger Ebert’s life under severe disability from cancer, “Life Itself” (June 6, 2014) comes to mind.  Even with his disability, Hawking was allowed to ride in a weightlessness simulator.
  
  

I do wonder about Hawking's "attitude" as a teen before he became disabled.  It was just a bit snobbish, and I entertained the same ideas at his age, to the social disapproval of others, including my  own father, with his moral lectures about "learning to work".  I was gifted but not as brilliant as him, and slightly physically disabled, but not to the point that I could "get out of things" without recrimination.  I noted that Hawking liked to listen to classical music recordings -- he mentioned Wagner (and the film showed tone arm and vulnerable vinyl).  Similar personalities and slightly different circumstances make for different outcomes.  How would Hawking have done with his work if he had not developed ALS and had normal physicality?   Yet, I know others today, two generations younger than me, with gifts like mine and with no disability, but an "attitude" -- and they do fine.  External culture matters too.

At one point, Hawking declares that there is no afterlife, and that he has to make the most of every single day. Yet his life seems like a perfect illustration of the idea of intergenerational karma, the way they teach it at the Monroe Institute. I think that free will and consciousness are part of the universe, as they come into being, and they can't be destroyed.
 
The official site is here and the film played at SXSW. 

Update:  Note Hawking's own account on his change of view on black hole radiation and maintenance of "information", link here

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