Famed physicist Stephen Hawking was a mediocre and lazy student, had troublesome relationships with his two ex-wives, writes at the slow pace of three words a minute, and other things we learned from his new autobiography, My Brief History. The memoir comes out on Tuesday; two excerpts from that book that appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph and provide a brief history of Hawking's Brief History.
The title plays off of his much-lauded pop-sci bestseller A Brief History of Time, which has sold over 10 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages. The memoir illuminates Hawking's everyman self-appraisement, as The Metro describes: "[I]t’s impossible not to warm to his wry writing, in which he does a fine – if only partial – job of removing himself from his pedestal and reminding us that behind the robot voice he is just A Bloke." Yup, that Stephen Hawking is just a bloke. Just a regular, 71-year-old, Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning, most-recognizable-scientist-in-the-world bloke.
Take that claim with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, here are a few reasons Hawking can actually claim to be like those of us for whom the Riemann hypothesis means nothing.
Hawking wasn't a great student
Though now considered to be one of the most brilliant thinkers in the world, Hawking took some time to develop. He didn't learn to read until he was eight years old, much later than his sister — who "was definitely brighter than me," he admits. His late start likely contributed to the fact that "I was never more than about halfway up the class. My classwork was very untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers," Hawking explains.
Sure, he won a scholarship to Oxford at the tender age of 17, but once there, he often took the easy way out of doing hard work (not unlike most college students). He did an average of about an hour of work a day there, and struggled in at least one final exam. "I’m not proud of this lack of work, but at the time I shared my attitude with most of my fellow students. We affected an air of complete boredom and the feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for," he writes. Hawking was just too cool for school, it seems. The future world-renowned physicist squeaked just above the dividing line between first-class and second-class grades, essentially earning a gentleman's A-minus.
Hawking is a slow writer
That's perhaps to be expected for Hawking, who has slowly seen his body break down due to a motor neuron ailment related to Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS. But the pace with which he wrote My Brief History — three words a minute — really makes his determination startling. It took two full years to write this memoir, a 126-page collection of his many lectures, photos, and anecdotes over the past years.
In good part, this ponderous pace is largely due to the fact that he wrote the book heavily assisted by modern technology, in which he moves his cheek muscles to pick out letters on a screen.
Hawking struggled with women
Twice married and with three children, Hawking had his share of success with the opposite sex. But the memoir reveals the details behind the fallouts with his first wife, Jane Wilde, and how she pulled him out of depression but then fell into one herself:
She was worried that I was going to die soon and wanted someone who would give her and the children support and marry her when I was gone. She found Jonathan Jones, a musician and organist at the local church, and gave him a room in our apartment. I would have objected, but I too was expecting an early death and felt I needed someone to support the children after I was gone.
The marital problems appear to stem from problems due to his neurological disease, and it's hard not to read an underlying somber, sorrowful tone throughout the book.
But in the end, Hawking admits he has been "quietly satisfied" with his life. He's floated in zero gravity, he's given college talks, and he's added to the understanding of the universe. With this 13-chapter memoir, he has neatly tidied up all those personal stories in a chronological, fast-paced story.
(Photo of boy Hawking on boat: Courtesy of Stephen Hawking; Photo of Hawking at college graduation: Gillman & Soame; Photo of Hawking and background Universe: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.