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BOOK REVIEW : Scientist's Biography Loses a Bit in 'Translation' : STEPHEN HAWKING: A Life in Science, by Michael White and John Gribbin, Dutton, $23; 304 pages

June 09, 1992|BETTYANN KEVLES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people aren't gifted with biographies unless they make it to high office, Hollywood or heaven. Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, who at 49 meets none of these criteria, already had been chronicled several times in film and print before the publication of Michael White's and John Gribbin's "Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science."

Hawking is a theoretical physicist whose "A Brief History of Time" has been an international bestseller. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a deteriorating condition that confines his locomotion to a wheelchair and his vocal expression to a computer-generated voice-synthesizer.

Although his biographers protest that Hawking's disability is beside the point, it obviously isn't. ALS usually kills within five years. Hawking has broken all records in his longevity, but the sword dangles above his head. Part of the fascination he exerts rests on this fragility, and on the paradox of a brilliant mind trapped inside a flaccid body. His illness has focused his energies and created financial needs that he solved by going public--that is, by expressing his remarkable view of the universe in accessible language in print.

White and Gribbin, both experienced science writers, parallel Hawking's intellectual achievements with news events of the time, an odd device that sheds no light on either Hawking's life or work. We learn, for instance, that the year he began working on black holes, headlines noted a Middle Eastern airline hijacking and the death of Bertrand Russell at the age of 97.

What the authors do very well is trace Hawking's role in the development of cosmology--the study of the nature of the universe, and the unity of space and time. Occasionally quoting from Hawking, they explain how he incorporated new evidence from radioastronomy and higher-powered optical instruments into a mathematical theory that explains how black holes relate to an expanding universe.

They venture into hyperbole, however, in arguing that Hawking, as Einstein's scientific heir, may complete Einstein's self-appointed task of producing a unified field theory. As they describe Hawking's successes and many honors, they leave the impression that his success depended on the work of many collaborators, especially the mathematician Roger Penrose.

Their anecdotes about Hawking's personality also lack the color of other accounts, such as Dennis Overbye's "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos." Overbye tells how, having accidentally rolled his wheelchair off the end of a speaker's platform, Hawking noted that he had just fallen over the edge of the universe.

Part of the legend that surrounded the Hawkings in Cambridge, where they still live, included the altruism of Jane Wilde, whom he married when they were both very young, but after he had been diagnosed with ALS. She cared for him and their three children for 25 years. The marriage ended when Hawking moved in with Elaine Mason, his caretaker and wife of the man who had adapted his computer to work with his wheelchair.

Their marital problems, the biographers insist, grew largely from tension between her Christian orthodoxy and his slide from agnosticism to atheism (Hawking's perception that time and space had no beginning does not allow for a Creator). The authors write as if no other famous British scientific couple ever had such a problem, and fail to draw an analogy between the Hawkings and Charles and Emma Darwin. The Darwins suffered similar religious tensions but remained together. That may have been due not only to the differences between evolution and cosmology and the differences in personalities, but also to changed expectations of the roles of wives and husbands.

"Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science" has not been edited for American readers, and some may find this off-putting. We read about Hawking's dependence on "sticks" before he had to use crutches and see references to the construction of the world's first Hovercraft on the Isle of Wight, as if that were a major historical marker. More important, there is a good deal of space given to the English class system, which some Americans will find irrelevant.

Closer to home, some of the authors' information about Caltech is simply wrong. It is untrue that "the suicide rate among students ranks almost as high as its academic reputation," or that Caltech is close to one of the best telescopes in the world at Mt. Wilson. That observatory has been largely closed for some time, its role having passed to the telescope on Palomar Mountain.

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