Einstein's Inspiring Heir

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Hawking can also be wrong. In 1985, for example, he brashly proclaimed that when and if the universe stopped expanding and began to contract, time would reverse and everything that had ever happened would be rerun in reverse. Eighteen months later, he sheepishly admitted his mistake. Earlier, after trashing another scientist's notion that the 19th century theory of thermodynamics could be applied to black-hole theory, he recanted and began applying it himself.

Without his wife Jane, Hawking has always emphasized, his career might never have soared. She married him shortly after he was diagnosed with ALS, fully aware of the dreadful, progressive nature of the disease, giving him hope and the will to carry on with his studies. They had three children in the early stages of their marriage, and later, as he became increasingly incapacitated, she devoted herself to catering to his every need.

After years of apparently harmonious marriage, however, rifts began appearing. As the accolades and awards poured in for Stephen, Jane -- competent and intelligent herself -- began to resent living in his shadow. Deeply religious, she was also offended by his apparent atheism. Particularly galling to her was his concept, enunciated first before the Pope at a scientific meeting at the Vatican, that the universe might be completely self- contained, having no boundary or edge, no beginning or end. If that were true, he asked provocatively, "What place, then, for a creator?" Still, friends were shocked in 1990 when Hawking abruptly ended their 25-year marriage, moving in with one of his nurses.

What this book brings to the already crowded domain of Hawking lore is a rather successful merger of biography and physics. As it traces the course of Hawking's life, it pauses occasionally to prepare the reader for the mind- boggling complexities of relativity theory and the even more bizarre notions of quantum physics -- twin pillars on which Hawking has constructed his theories -- which he is currently attempting to unite in an all- encompassing theory. The authors characterize their early review of Newton's classical theory of gravitation, for example, as "a gentle workout in the foothills before we head for the dizzy heights."

The exercise works. By the time the higher elevations are reached, such strange notions as Einsteinian curved space-time and the quantum uncertainty principle, heavy meals indeed, seem not so difficult to digest.

Still, it is the man, more than the science, who dominates this book, with his triumph over a terrible affliction, his courage, his humor and his admirable lack of self-pity. As Hawking's computer voice declared during the final scene in a BBC TV show, "I have a beautiful family, I am successful in my work, and I have written a best seller. One really can't ask for more."

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