Jane Hawking, Wife of Stephen Hawking tells her own “Theory of Everything”
Jane Hawking, who was divorced from Stephen in 1995 and whose book, Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen was adapted by Anthony McCarten to form the core of the movie.Here she talks about her relationship with Stephen Hawking.
IT IS 1963, and we’re at a student party in Oxford. A young man approaches a young woman.
“I’m a cosmologist,” he says.
“It’s religion for intelligent atheists.”
You will have seen him on The Simpsons and Star Trek but you’ve never seen him like this. Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous living scientist, as a young, able-bodied, ambitious student, chatting someone up.
This is the beginning of The Theory of Everything, the story of Hawking’s exceptional life framed by the blossoming – and eventual withering – of romance with his first wife, then Jane Wilde. Straight away we are tipped off to the broad tone that the movie will take on their relationship: one of his godless cosmology, and of her more conventional Christianity. But how true to life is it? And if it isn’t, how much does that matter?
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are outstanding in the roles of Stephen and Jane. Redmayne especially is extraordinary in his portrayal of how Hawking is affected by motor neuron disease. By the end, when he is almost completely paralysed and unable to speak naturally, everything must be conveyed visually. Redmayne accomplishes this task brilliantly.
Jones plays the indomitable Jane with quiet restraint and subtlety. This is fitting for her performance, and the role Jane played in his life, is always at risk of being overlooked.
The film skimps on the science, but nit-picking over the accuracy of science in movies is rarely worthwhile. It’s too much to hope that a biopic can convey the depth of what Hawking did. It’s technical stuff, after all – and even Hawking’s bestselling pop science book, A Brief History of Time, tops lists of books we don’t finish.
But no one had used quantum physics to examine what happens in black holes before Hawking. He discovered that contrary to the belief that nothing can escape the gravity of black holes, a small amount of radiation can, in fact, get out.
In the movie, that discovery – of what would come to be known as Hawking radiation– is conveyed as a eureka moment that happens when Hawking is staring into a fire. The reality – the proof coming only after months of intense calculation – shows that this stuff is difficult, even for the world’s smartest man.
The film’s director, James Marsh, has experience in making films based on scientific experiments. His 2011 documentary film Project Nim was the story of a baby chimp reared as a human child; it was a compelling story of science, but science went very wrong.
Despite the immense richness of the subject matter here, his telling of Hawking’s work doesn’t communicate the same complexity. The Theory of Everythingsplashes around on the shore, but doesn’t go deep into what Hawking actually did.
In some ways, another new movie, Interstellar, does better. This may be because it has Kip Thorne, one of Hawking’s longest-standing physicist friends, as executive producer and science adviser. For a mainstream movie, it manages a far more thorough exploration of the science of black holes.
So does Marsh succeed in telling the story of the central relationship in Hawking’s life? To find out, we spoke exclusively to Jane Hawking, who was divorced from Stephen in 1995 and whose book, Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen was adapted by Anthony McCarten to form the core of the movie.
Stephen has said he found the film “broadly true”. What do you think?
The parts of the film that was true to life were particularly moving, some of them quite overwhelming, but I did not relate to the fictitious episodes or anything outside my own experience.
How was that first meeting with Stephen?
There was no exchange about cosmology or religion, except that Stephen explained that he had just begun research in cosmology in Cambridge. Instead, he gave a lively account of his encounter with the Oxford examiners who called him for a viva after Finals.
There’s a scene in the film about the May Ball, where Stephen explains that the men’s shirts are fluorescing under UV light because of Tide washing powder. The next day, there’s a packet of Tide on your doorstep. Did that happen?
It isn’t really the sort of thing that anyone would make up!
Has your role as a conduit in explaining Stephen’s work been overlooked?
Although a linguist, I was always interested in and fascinated by, Stephen’s explanations of his work, and proud of his discoveries and achievements. There was a time when I could explain gravitational collapse and subsequently black holes to an amateur audience, but only in practical, not mathematical terms.
I did the first proofreading of A Brief History of Time, and when it came to writing my memoir, I consulted many scientific friends, so that contrary to what many critics supposed and were churlish enough to voice, I did actually write the scientific sections myself.
How much did you feel a tension between the religious implications of Stephen’s work and your own Christian beliefs?
I had to be steadfast in my Christian beliefs, seeking strength from them. I believed that what I was doing was right and that this role gave my life a purpose, otherwise I should have collapsed under the strain. The tension between Stephen’s atheistic stance and my faith always existed but neither of us tried to convert the other. I am not evangelical.
Did that tension ever come into the open? In the film, there is an exchange between you around the line in A Brief History where he says that if a theory of everything is found “we would know the mind of God”…
Some experiences proved to be rather more disturbing, particularly the trip to Israel with a party of physicists in 1988, where Stephen proudly proclaimed – in the holiest, most ancient city in the world – that he did not believe in God and there was no room for God in his universe, while I looked on, feeling hurt and bewildered.
“In the holiest, most ancient city in the world, Stephen proudly proclaimed that he did not believe in God”
The film’s portrayal of the science and of your life together has been criticised. What did you make of it?
If the film – as well as my daughter Lucy’s books – encourages a [new] generation of scientists, that can only be a good thing. I insisted to the producers and director how important scientific accuracy was in this instance.
The reply from the film industry was that they were trying to squeeze 25 years into 2 hours so had to concertina events, warp timescales and conflate characters. In terms of their remit that is just about understandable – I think. After all, The Theory of Everything is not a scientific documentary. There have been plenty of those.
And what of the relationship?
My reaction is similar to my reaction to the physics. Again, I have had to try to understand the restraints imposed on the film industry by the need to depict a quarter of a century in 2 hours. However, I would certainly like to have seen a better balance between the glittering successes and the exhausting struggles for survival, and at least some reference to the many arduous travels we undertook – removing the whole family to California for a year is but one instance.
Nevertheless, it is a great privilege to have a feature film made about us in our lifetimes, and I comfort myself with the thought that if people are interested to know more, they can read Travelling to Infinity.
(This article Taken from: Credits to the New Scientist of 30 December 2014
This article appeared in print under the headline “My life with a science icon”)
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