My Brief History, Stephen Hawking’s autobiography, is certainly brief. It is a whistle-stop tour of anecdotes about his life, interspersed with some fairly heavy physics. The tone is upbeat throughout, and it gives some genuine insights into Hawking’s life and motivations.
However, it does feel a little like Hawking is uncomfortable writing about his life. He writes with obvious bitterness about the intrusion of the media into his personal life, and I got the sense from reading this autobiography that he found the process of talking about himself somewhat intrusive too. He rarely gives a great detail of insight into the more emotional side of her personal life. To illustrate, here is the level of detail Hawking shares about one of his weddings:
The fellowship meant Jane and I could get married, which we did in July 1965.
I don’t think this detracts from the book at all: I note it only because it differs from the prevailing tone of autobiographies published recently, and I think it gives some insight into Hawking’s personality.
There are some truly remarkable anecdotes in here, including this one:
On my way home, I and my travelling companion, Richard Chiin, were caught in the Bou’in-Zahra earthquake, a magnitude 7.1 quake that killed more than twelve thousand people. I must have been near the epicentre, but I was unaware of it because I was ill and in a bus that was bouncing around on the Iranian roads.
There are also touches of an especially wry humour:
The colleges were therefore all single-sex and the gates locked at midnight, by which time all visitors – especially those of the opposite sex – were supposed to be out. After that, if you wanted to leave, you had to climb a high wall topped with spikes. My college didn’t want its students getting injured, so it left a gap in the spikes, and it was quite easy to climb out.
All-in-all, I got the very strong impression that this book was very personal to Hawking. It feels like he has related the stories he wants to relate in the way that he wants to relate them – pushing himself a little to reveal slightly uncomfortable details, but no pushed by an editor into shaping the book in any particular way, nor driving too far into personal territory.
My highest qualification in physics is the GCSE I earned twelve years ago, and so it’s hardly surprising that I found some of the physics hard to follow. The discussions of concepts like imaginary time (which is simply at right-angles to normal time, apparently) became more dense towards the end of the book. But the fact that the discussion of wormholes left me a little behind didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. While I didn’t follow all of the science, I appreciated the beauty of his descriptions.
This is a brief book. But I felt that it contained a good deal of insight, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read.