My Brief History by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
How does one review someone’s life? It’s probably one of the harder things to do, especially with such an icon as Stephen Hawking. I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who has a copy of A Brief History of Time, but I haven’t read it yet (I’m going to, I swear!).
My Brief History by Dr. Stephen Hawking is his personal memoir. For those who don’t know who Stephen Hawking is, he is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. He predicted the radiation emitted from black holes (Hawking radiation), and has worked extensively on a grand unifying theory. Some consider him to be the smartest man alive. He also has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left him paralyzed in a wheelchair and only able to communicate through a speech synthesizer.
The first thing the reader will notice is how short his memoir is, which may trouble the reader. This apprehension is not without merit. Hawking discusses his family and early life, his studies at school, developing his theories, and how he eventually became a Director at Cambridge. And all this in a very small space.
It’s difficult to criticize a memoir without feeling like you’re criticizing the person’s life. So I’ll emphasize that my criticism of My Brief History is only a criticism of this book, not of Hawking himself.
The problem is that this book feels very rushed. Hawking talks about his life, and even discusses when they discovered he had ALS and how it’s progressed over his life. But he glosses over a lot of the detail. If you’re looking for an in-depth description of what it’s like or his feeling about living with a serious and progressing disability, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Hawking spends comparatively much more time describing the thought process and work that went into his scientific theories that made him famous. He gives some background on what went on behind the scenes while writing and publishing A Brief History of Time, but nothing really juicy or controversial.
Coming away from this memoir, it feels like Hawking wasn’t really that into writing it. It’s clear what he’s most interested in talking about (science), but doesn’t seem that interested in discussing himself personally. He does say that the public focus on his disability has made him a little uncomfortable, and he wouldn’t mind if people simply focused on his work, but he also recognizes that it gets people paying attention to scientific achievements. It feels like he wrote this book more for demands to know more about him personally than any real desire to tell his story.
If you’re looking for anything new or revelatory about Dr. Hawking, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a very concise memoir that’s mostly devoid of any controversial content, which is what most memoir-readers are going to look for. I suppose this says something about Dr. Hawking’s character, that he’s led a good life and been mostly focused on his work. But at the same time, the reader might feel like this book is a waste of time to read, with only minor gaps in what we already knew about him being filled in. However, when looking at Dr. Hawking’s work, whether time can actually be wasted is beyond the scope of this review.
My Brief History earns a very middle-of-the-road 2.5 black holes out of 5.