Skip to main content

Stephen Hawking – Kitty Ferguson ***

It’s apt that I’m writing this review on the train to Cambridge, Stephen Hawking’s home turf. A good few years ago we were taking a young German on a tour of Cambridge. He had no interest in science, but when we saw Hawking trundling along King’s Parade in his powered wheelchair our visitor instantly knew who he was. If you ask a person in the street to name the two most important physicists of the last 100 years they would probably name Einstein, then Hawking. Which is odd, because I wouldn’t put him in the top 20.
That sounds harsh, but I think Hawking is to physics what Katherine Jenkins is to opera. To the general public, Jenkins is obviously a great opera singer, after all she’s always on the TV. But those in the opera world will point out she has never sung a complete role. It’s not that she’s a bad singer, she just isn’t what the public thinks she is. Similarly by saying I might not put Hawking in my top 20 I’m not saying he’s not a great physicist. But bear in mind that well over 200 people have won the Nobel Prize in physics over the last 100 years. I’m just saying that most of those who know the field would have to consider Feynman or Dirac or Rutherford or a whole host of others before they got round to Hawking.
Yet Hawking remains a star. I went into Kitty Ferguson’s chunky biography of Hawking hoping I would understand this better, as well as getting a detailed feel for his work. The two obvious factors driving his stardom are the remarkable story of his having a full working career despite being told he would die in his 20s of his degenerative disease and his media exposure, driven by the huge success of A Brief History of Time which started the popular science bubble – but would Ferguson reveal more?
It is perhaps telling of the subject that I found myself more interested in the biographical parts than the science. It doesn’t help that this is often fairly abstruse – many of Hawking’s indubitably ingenious ideas are speculative and at the edge of our understanding, more grounded in maths than real observational science, which gives Ferguson a real challenge in explaining them. On the whole she does well, but the section on the relationship of space and time near the big bang was very difficult to read. I was also a little disappointed by the obvious omissions of explanation, even in something relatively straightforward like Hawking radiation.
Ferguson tells us that black holes lose energy this way, as a virtual particle pair that forms near the black hole can have the negative energy particle sucked into the hole while the positive energy particle zooms off, reducing the overall mass/energy of the black hole. There are two problems with this she doesn’t explain. One is how a particle can have negative energy – an antimatter particle, for instance, doesn’t have negative mass, so why negative energy? The other is why the majority of particles from virtual pairs sucked into the black hole are the negative energy ones. Why aren’t an equal number (statistically) of positive energy ones sucked in, producing no net effect? These kind of simple questions are often the ones popular science readers like answered.
The good news is that I did feel I had learned a lot more about Hawking’s ideas (if it was sometimes hard work) and about his personal life. The were some insights into Brief History of Time too (I couldn’t believe he got a $250,000 advance for the US version), though not really explaining its runaway success. I found the book genuinely interesting, despite Ferguson occasionally verging on hero-worship of Hawking. There were a couple of minor factual quibbles. I was unnerved to read that the New Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge was built in 1974 as I started attending lectures there in 1973. And the author’s American origins came through in her lack of understanding of British life before the 1960s – she suggested that somehow not having central heating made Hawking’s childhood home ramshackle – but it was the norm back then. These are trivial indeed, though.
If you are genuinely interested in Hawking this will definitely fill in a lot of the gaps in both his personal life and many popular science explanations of his work. If you made an attempt on Brief History of Time and failed, this is probably not for you.
Hardback:  
Also paperback (July 2012): 
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…