Einstein said that his advances in science were in part due to never losing a sense of childlike wonder about the world. Every few years I’m inspired by a similar awareness and pick up a book on dark matter, string theory or quantum mechanics, hoping to gain a better understanding of the universe. Some authors are better than others at explaining complex theories; often I am more confused than when I started. I was happy to hear last week that Wu-tang Clan’s GZA is releasing an album called Dark Matter, an ode to physics inspired by considerable research on the field of cosmology. I have a feeling he’ll be better suited than most experts at explaining the mysteries of the universe.
One physicist that seems to have few problems clearly explaining cosmology is Stephen Hawking. Hawking has made complex theories accessible to millions with his bestseller A Brief History of the Universe. In his recent autobiography My Brief History he shares the details surrounding his life and professional successes, along with intimate stories and photos rarely seen from his life. The photo of him on the cover of the book was shocking the first time I saw it; he stands tall with his arms outstretched, hamming it up with a wild bunch of students at Oxford. The photo is jarring since it’s hard to imagine him as anyone other than the ill looking man in a wheelchair, modulating in his electronic robot voice.
My Brief History is more than just personal stories. Hawking reveals the thoughts behind some of his greatest ideas, and also shares his early interest in science, and his years at Oxford when his health began to suffer. He acknowledges that the diagnosis of ALS in his twenties and the threat of an early death pushed him to succeed professionally. He also writes candidly about his family and two marriages, one of which gained a fair amount of notoriety and media attention. Overall, Hawking sounds like a satisfied and grateful man, more so, since he has always lived with the assumption that his life would be cut short.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was hoping he would open up about his second marriage and the allegations of spousal abuse and neglect that surfaced in the last decade. I was also curious how a completely paralyzed man, with only the aid of an electronic voice could pursue an extramarital affair and take up with his nurse, saying “they had a passionate and tempestuous relationship”. He stays classy and doesn’t divulge much, not surprising since he publicly denied the allegations and the investigation on his ex-wife was dropped. I respect the man who keeps his private life mostly private, bringing focus instead to his professional life and the reasons he persistently explored and questioned the nature of the universe.
Hawking doesn’t appear to be any closer to answering any of the really big questions, though I’m not completely sure I’m ready for a unified theory on everything. A little mystery never hurt anyone. It keeps the dreamers dreaming, scientists employed, and gives us something to ponder when we gaze around the world with wonder. In an age of over-sharing and too much information, isn’t there something comforting in not knowing everything?