Karl W. Giberson
The Guy in the Wheelchair
Hawking wrote his Brief History to meet financial needs generated by his advancing illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as "Lou Gehrig's disease," which gradually destroys motor neurons, in turn limiting one's ability to initiate and control muscle movement. Although the disease leads to complete physical paralysis, the majority of those afflicted with ALS suffer no mental impairment. Hawking, for example, has continued to work productively even after his physical limitations advanced to the point that all he could do was wiggle one finger.
The Making of a Legend
"I suspect that Hawking—who may be less a truth seeker than an artist, an illusionist, a cosmic joker—knew all along that finding and empirically validating a unified theory would be extremely difficult, even impossible. His declaration that physics was on the verge of finding The Answer may well have been an ironic statement, less an assertion than a provocation."
—John Horgan in The End of Science. Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1997)
Hawking's ALS showed up in the early 1970s when he was barely thirty and turned simple tasks like getting into bed into major challenges. Initially he had one of his students live with him and his wife Jane to help him manage personal tasks. Fortunately for Hawking, his great fame guaranteed that there were always students eager to do this—even cosmology has its groupies. By the early 1980s, his disease had so slurred his speech that only people very familiar with Hawking could understand him; many of his public appearances at this time included one of his students, who would interpret his inscrutable monotone mumbling. There was the looming financial pressure of his children's education. And expensive nurses were now required to supplement the care provided by his students and the long-suffering Jane.
Hawking was encouraged to spin some money out of his growing fame by writing a popular book on cosmology, an idea he rejected at first; scientists writing "popular" books were typically regarded by their peers with disdain. He eventually gave in, however, and met with an editor from Cambridge University Press, explaining that he needed to write a book that would make money. The editor responded that Hawking's proposed "popular" science manuscript, with equations on every page, might not turn out to be all that popular. A publishing dictum suggests that each equation cuts a book's sales in half. Applied to Hawking's manuscript, this formula predicted sales in the single digits.
In early 1983, a farsighted editor at Bantam Books in New York lured Hawking away from Cambridge University Press. Convinced that the combination of Hawking's heroic scientific stature and pitiful physical condition was the stuff of legend, he offered Hawking a quarter-million-dollar advance and a favorable deal on royalties. Hawking signed.
The book appeared in 1988, and within a decade had sold almost ten million copies. Meanwhile, Stephen and Jane Hawking's personal life became tabloid fare, even as their marriage began to disintegrate, a development they hid from the press for as long as possible. The ensuing publicity marginalized the heroic Jane (an evangelical Christian, as it happens), whose loving support for Stephen had been instrumental both in saving his life and in enabling his career. In her deeply spiritual memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which appeared in an updated edition this spring, Jane laments that she became "an appendage, a peep show—relevant to Stephen's survival and success only because in the distant past I had married him, made a home for him, and produced his three children." They separated in 1991 and divorced four years later.
Knowing the Mind of God
The science "popularized" in A Brief History of Time derives from Hawking's speculative work on the large-scale structure of the cosmos, particularly as it relates to the "beginning." The conventional picture of the cosmos articulated in introductory astronomy books comes from the Big Bang theory and has the universe appearing from some unknown prior configuration about 14 billion years ago. The ubiquitous timelines that lay out this cosmic history in such books generally have a comic-book "explosion" at the beginning (time = 0, or "t = 0" as scientists shorthand it).