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Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind

Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind

4.0 3
by Kitty Ferguson

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In an updated edition with a new chapter, just in time for Stephen Hawking's 75th birthday, Kitty Ferguson looks at one of the most remarkable figures of our age—bestselling author of A Brief History of Time, celebrated theoretical physicist, and an inspiration to millions around the world -- with fresh insights into the way he thinks and works, his


In an updated edition with a new chapter, just in time for Stephen Hawking's 75th birthday, Kitty Ferguson looks at one of the most remarkable figures of our age—bestselling author of A Brief History of Time, celebrated theoretical physicist, and an inspiration to millions around the world -- with fresh insights into the way he thinks and works, his ever-more-imaginative adventures in science at the “flaming ramparts of the world,” the discovery of gravity waves, the blockbuster proposal for “Starshot” to explore the cosmos, and his increasingly powerful use of his celebrity on behalf of human rights and survival on earth and beyond. With rare access to Hawking, including childhood photos and in-depth research, award-winning author Kitty Ferguson continues to create a rich and comprehensive picture of Hawking's life: his childhood; the heartbreaking ALS diagnosis when he was a first-year graduate student; his long personal battle for survival in pursuit of a scientific understanding of the universe; and his rise to international fame. Ferguson uses her gift for translating the language of theoretical physics into the language of the rest of us to make Hawking's scientific work accessible. This is an insightful, absorbing, and definitive account of a brilliant mind and the extraordinary life of a man who at seventy-five is as up-to-date as tomorrow.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Ferguson shines at explaining Hawking's theories, the jovially competitive academic world in which they are hammered out and her subject's distinctive and evolving intellectual style…An irresistible story. His puckish humor and exuberance for life and for ideas are infectious even at a remove. And the ideas themselves could not ask for a better elucidator.” —Laura Miller, Salon

“Intelligent and readable . . . Kitty Ferguson is astonishing in her own right . . . She is a careful explicator not only of [Hawkings'] ideas but of the context in which they arose.” —Sara Lippincott, The Los Angeles Times

“Ferguson provides engaging and helpful explanations of the physics behind [Hawking's] triumphs.” —The Washington Post

“Ferguson's biography of this remarkable man, who recently marked his 70th birthday, is based on personal interviews and a sound understanding of the physics behind Hawking's ideas...this is a delightful book...Highly recommended.” —Choice

“Ferguson replaces the iconic but static image of cosmologist Hawking with flesh and blood in this vivid portrait… Through interviews with Hawking and his colleagues, friends, and family, Ferguson builds a complete picture of Hawking's life, from his tireless work to explain our universe to his notorious driving, playful appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and other shows, campaigning to improve the lives of the disabled, and his family life, with special attention to his relationship with his first wife, Jane, whose sacrifices allowed him to focus on his work. In the end, Ferguson captures the very full life and work of one of the most vibrant minds of our time.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Ferguson brilliantly updates her 1991 children's biography of Stephen Hawking for an adult audience . . . Her ability to write clearly about scientific issues using metaphor rather than mathematics makes this an excellent introduction to astrophysics for the interested layman. A fascinating portrait of a complex figure who ponders the place of man and God in the universe and who still loves the 'Eureka moment of discovering something that no one knew before.'” —Kirkus Reviews

“Kitty Ferguson gives a thorough account of Hawking the man, as well as of his extraordinary body of work in cosmology. [She has] a flair for the original which makes much of the tome highly readable. There are excellently clear descriptions of the large issues and precious few off-putting mathematics and equations...Ferguson pitches the balance between Hawking's personal life and an explanation of his work about right.” —Greg Jamison, Entertainment Focus

“As both a global icon and an innovative theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking is well served by science writer Kitty Ferguson's fascinating biography. Ferguson explains in accessible terms the major themes that Hawking has explored in his career, and creates a portrait of the pri­vate man by drawing on her close personal contact with him and his family. ... Ferguson's sympathetic and informed take on an individual who has enriched human knowledge against the odds is an excellent summing-up, as Hawking approaches his 70th birthday, of his unique and creative contribution to both science and humanity.” —George Ellis, Nature

“More than a biography … a brave attempt to chart the life of the celebrated physicist in parallel with his astounding and important work…. Ferguson has spent a lot of time with Hawking and as a scientist she attempts to explain in lay terms the fundamental concepts of Hawking's vast and amazing body of work.” —Bertrams

“Science writer Kitty Ferguson has been working for over 20 years to reveal the real Stephen Hawking to the world… Beyond explaining his scientific achievements, Ferguson brings us closer to the man who plays hide-and-seek with his young son, endures marital discord, has a sign on his office door that reads "Quiet Please, The Boss is Asleep," and kibitzes with a journalist who asked if he has willed his DNA to science: "I don't think anyone would want another copy of me." Ultimately, the most astonishing aspect of Ferguson's Hawking is not his otherness, but the extraordinary things that one determined individual can accomplish once he realizes that "life is worth living.” —Harold Heft, The Montreal Gazette

Marcia Bartuskiak
…Ferguson has brought out a new edition of her 1991 biography of the British theoretical physicist, then titled Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of the Universe. Although more than half of the book remains essentially the same, new information about Hawking's private life that came to light over the last two decades makes for a more thorough account. Ferguson has fleshed out the story, enhancing her earlier narrative appreciably.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Ferguson replaces the iconic but static image of cosmologist Hawking with flesh and blood in this vivid portrait. This is familiar terrain for Ferguson, who built such good rapport with Hawking while researching her book Stephen Hawking: A Quest for a Theory of Everything some 20 years ago, that he asked her to consult on his own book, The Universe in a Nutshell. Hawking grew from a “rather lazy” student to a pioneering cosmologist in an era when the field was regarded as little more than a pseudoscience. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) early in graduate school, he defeated the odds and will soon celebrate his 70th birthday. Through interviews with Hawking and his colleagues, friends, and family, Ferguson builds a complete picture of Hawking’s life, from his tireless work to explain our universe to his notorious driving, playful appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and other shows, campaigning to improve the lives of the disabled, and his family life, with special attention to his relationship with his first wife, Jane, whose sacrifices allowed him to focus on his work. In the end, Ferguson captures the very full life and work of one of the most vibrant minds of our time. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Ferguson, author of Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything (1991) and consultant for Stephen Hawking's 2001 book, The Universe in a Nutshell, knows her Hawking as well as her science, a rare combination. In this latest work, she offers readers insight into a celebrity scientist whose ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) stands at the forefront of mass media and into the theoretical physics that, for many of us, swirls in the stratosphere—bringing both into focus for general readers. She intertwines Hawking's evolving life events and developing scientific thinking into a very readable examination and narrative. It is quite delightful to follow Hawking's reception by the media. From the cartoon series The Simpsons to the sf show Star Trek: The Next Generation to talk shows galore, he is probably the most recognizable living scientist. VERDICT This is definitely a must-read for those into Hawking, theoretical physics, and the pursuit of a single model of everything. Even those who don't follow physics will find this intellectual biography extremely enjoyable.—Margaret Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
Ferguson (Pythagoras, 2010, etc.) brilliantly updates her 1991 children's biography of Stephen Hawking for an adult audience. Hawking's work on black holes and the origins of the universe guarantees him a place in the scientific pantheon, but his ability to pursue scientific work despite the ravages of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) have earned him superstar status. Diagnosed in 1962 with a prognosis that he would be dead within two years, he refused to be daunted. He continued his studies, married and fathered three children and made major contributions to our understanding of the universe, all while struggling to maintain his ability to function despite increasing muscular atrophy that prevented his use of his hands, confined him to a wheel chair and ultimately robbed him of his ability to speak. In 1979, he was appointed Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair once held by Isaac Newton. Now almost 70 and only able to communicate through a computer, he still maintains a busy lecture schedule. His latest book, The Grand Design (co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow), was published in 2010. Ferguson has relied on Hawking for guidance on scientific topics and on a memoir written by his ex-wife for details of life during their 25-year marriage. Her ability to write clearly about scientific issues using metaphor rather than mathematics makes this an excellent introduction to astrophysics for the interested layman. A fascinating portrait of a complex figure who ponders the place of man and God in the universe and who still loves the "Eureka moment of discovering something that no one knew before."

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Read an Excerpt

Stephen Hawking

An Unfettered Mind

By Kitty Ferguson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Kitty Ferguson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-00022-4


"The Quest for a Theory of Everything"


In the center of Cambridge, England, there are a handful of narrow lanes that seem hardly touched by the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. The houses and buildings represent a mixture of eras, but a step around the corner from the wider thoroughfares into any of these little byways is a step back in time, into a passage bending between old college walls or a village street with a medieval church and churchyard or a malt house. Traffic noises from equally old but busier roads nearby are barely audible. There is near silence, birdsong, voices, footsteps. Scholars and townspeople have walked here for centuries.

When I wrote my first book about Stephen Hawking, in 1990, I began the story in one of those little passageways, Free School Lane. It runs off Bene't Street, beside the church of St. Bene't's with its eleventh-century bell tower. Around the corner, in the lane, flowers and branches still droop through the iron palings of the churchyard, as they did twenty years ago and surely for centuries before that. Bicycles tethered there belie the antique feel of the place, but a little way along on the right is a wall of black, rough stones with narrow slit windows belonging to the fourteenth-century Old Court of Corpus Christi College, the oldest court in Cambridge. Turn your back to that wall and you see, high up beside a gothic-style gateway, a plaque that reads, THE CAVENDISH LABORATORY. This gateway and the opening beyond are a portal to a more recent era, oddly tucked away in the medieval street.

There is no hint here of the friary that stood on this site in the twelfth century or of the plants and trees of the gardens that later grew on its ruins. Instead, bleak, factory-like buildings, almost oppressive enough to be a prison, tower over grey asphalt pavement. The situation improves further into the complex, and in the two decades since I first wrote about it some newer buildings have gone up, but the glass walls of these well-designed modern structures are still condemned to reflect little besides the grimness of their more elderly neighbors.

For a century, until the University of Cambridge built the "New" Cavendish Labs in 1974, this complex housed one of the most important centers of physics research in the world. In these buildings, "J. J." Thomson discovered the electron, Ernest Rutherford probed the structure of the atom — and the list goes on and on. When I attended lectures here in the 1990s (for not everything moved to the New Cavendish in 1974), enormous chalk-boards were still in use, hauled noisily up and down with crank-driven chain-pulley systems to make room for the endless strings of equations in a physics lecture.

The Cockcroft Lecture Room, part of this same site, is a much more up-to-date lecture room. Here, on April 29, 1980, scientists, guests and university dignitaries gathered in steep tiers of seats, facing a two-story wall of chalkboard and slide screen — still well before the advent of PowerPoint. They had come for the inaugural lecture of a new Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, 38-year-old mathematician and physicist Stephen William Hawking. He had been named to this illustrious chair the previous autumn.

Hawking's friends and colleagues had learned to expect brash statements from him, and on this occasion he did not disappoint. The title announced for his lecture was a question: "Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?" Hawking declared that he thought it was. He invited his audience to join him in a sensational escape through time and space on a quest to find the Holy Grail of science: the theory that explains the universe and everything that happens in it — what some were calling the Theory of Everything.

Watching Stephen Hawking, silent in a wheelchair while one of his research students read his lecture, no one unacquainted with him would have thought he was a promising choice to lead such an adventure. But most of his listeners knew that theoretical physics is for Hawking the great escape from a prison more grim than any suggested by the Old Cavendish Labs. Beginning when he was a graduate student in his early twenties, he had lived with encroaching disability and the promise of an early death. Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in America as Lou Gehrig's disease after the New York Yankee first baseman, who died of it. The progress of the disease in Hawking's case had been slow, but by the time he became Lucasian Professor he could no longer walk, write, feed himself, or raise his head if it tipped forward. His speech was slurred and almost unintelligible except to those few who knew him best. He had prepared the Lucasian lecture by painstakingly dictating his text ahead of time, so that it could be read by the student. But Hawking certainly was and is no invalid. He is an active mathematician and physicist, whom some were even then calling the most brilliant since Einstein. The Lucasian Professorship is an extremely prestigious position in the University of Cambridge, dating from 1663. The second holder of the chair was Sir Isaac Newton.

It was typical of Hawking's iconoclasm to begin this distinguished professorship by predicting the end of his own field. He said he thought there was a good chance the so-called Theory of Everything would be found before the close of the twentieth century, leaving little for theoretical physicists like himself to do.

Since that lecture, many people have come to think of Stephen Hawking as the standard-bearer of the quest for that theory. However, the candidate he named for Theory of Everything was not one of his own theories but N=8 supergravity, a theory which many physicists at that time hoped might unify all the particles and the forces of nature. Hawking is quick to point out that his work is only one part of a much larger endeavor, involving physicists all over the world, and also part of a very old quest. The longing to understand the universe must surely be as ancient as human consciousness. Ever since human beings first began to look at the night skies as well as at the enormous variety of nature around them, and considered their own existence, they have been trying to explain all this with myths, religion, and, later, mathematics and science. We may not be much nearer to understanding the complete picture than our remotest ancestors, but most of us like to think, as does Stephen Hawking, that we are.

Hawking's life story and his science are rife with paradoxes. Things are often not what they seem. Here is a tale in which beginnings are endings; cruel circumstances lead to happiness, although fame and success may not; two brilliant and highly successful scientific theories taken together yield nonsense; empty space isn't empty after all; and black holes aren't black. In the twenty-first century, the effort to unite everything in a simple explanation is revealing, instead, a fragmented picture. And most paradoxical of all, a man whose physical appearance inspires shock and pity has led us joyfully to where the boundaries of time and space ought to be — but are not.

Everywhere we look in our universe, on all scales, reality (if Hawking will allow me to use this word) is astoundingly complex and elusive, sometimes alien, often not easy to take, and frequently impossible to predict. Beyond our universe there may be an infinite number of others. The close of the twentieth century has come and gone, and no one has discovered the Theory of Everything. Where does that leave Stephen Hawking's prediction? Can any scientific theory truly explain it all?


"Our Goal Is Nothing Less Than a Complete Description of the Universe We Live In"

The idea that all the amazing intricacy and variety we experience in the world and the cosmos may come down to something remarkably simple is not new or farfetched. The sage Pythagoras and his followers in southern Italy in the sixth century BC studied the relationships between lengths of strings on a lyre and the musical pitches these produced, and realized that hidden behind the confusion and complexity of nature there is pattern, order, rationality. In the two and a half millennia since, our forebears have continued to find — often, like the Pythagoreans, to their surprise and awe — that nature is less complicated than it first appears.

Imagine, if you can, that you are a super-intelligent alien who has absolutely no experience of our universe: is there a set of rules so complete that by studying them you could figure out exactly what our universe is like? Suppose someone handed you that rule book. Could it possibly be a short book?

For decades, many physicists believed that the rule book is not lengthy and contains a set of fairly simple principles, perhaps even just one principle that lies behind everything that has happened, is happening, and ever will happen in our universe. In 1980, Stephen Hawking made the daring suggestion that we might hold the rule book in our hands by the end of the twentieth century.

My family used to own a museum facsimile of an ancient board game. Archaeologists digging in the ruins of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia had unearthed an exquisite inlaid board with a few small carved pieces. It was obviously an elaborate game, but no one in the modern world knows its rules. The makers of the facsimile had tried to deduce them from the design of the board and pieces, but those like ourselves who bought the game were encouraged to make our own decisions and discoveries about how to play it.

You can think of the universe as something like that: a magnificent, elegant, mysterious game. Certainly there are rules, but the rule book didn't come with the game. The universe is no beautiful relic like the game found at Ur. Yes, it is old, but the game continues. We and everything we know about (and much we do not) are in the thick of the play. If there is a Theory of Everything, we and everything in the universe must be obeying its principles, even while we try to discover what they are.

You would expect the complete, unabridged rules for the universe to fill a vast library or supercomputer. There would be rules for how galaxies and clusters of galaxies form and move, for how the bodies of creatures living on earth work and fail to work, for how we humans relate to one another and to our environment, for what subatomic particles exist and how they interact, how water freezes, how plants grow, how and why dogs growl and bark — intricate rules within rules within rules. How could anyone think this could be reduced to a few principles?

American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman was amazingly skilled at explaining his science at a simple, understandable level. Here is his example of the way the reduction process happens: There was a time when we had something we called motion and something else called heat and something else again called sound.

But it was soon discovered, after Sir Isaac Newton explained the laws of motion, that some of these apparently different things were aspects of the same thing. For example, the phenomena of sound could be completely understood as the motion of atoms in the air. So sound was no longer considered something in addition to motion. It was also discovered that heat phenomena are easily understandable from the laws of motion. In this way, great globs of physics theory were synthesized into a simplified theory."

Life among the Small Pieces

If you are already familiar with the basics of general relativity and quantum mechanics, discussions about what makes a good scientific theory, and what is meant by a Theory of Everything, you may wish to skim the paragraphs that follow. If you are not, this simple overview will be extremely helpful for understanding the descriptions of Stephen Hawking's and others' work later in this book.

We begin on the level of the very small. All matter as we normally think of it in the universe — the matter making up you and me, air, ice, stars, gases, microbes, this book — is made up of minuscule building blocks called atoms. Atoms in turn are made up of smaller objects, called particles, and a lot of empty space.

Matter particles that orbit the nuclei of atoms are electrons, and the particles clustered in the nuclei are protons and neutrons, made up of even tinier particles of matter called "quarks." All matter particles belong to a class of particles called "fermions," named for the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. They have a system of messages that pass among them, causing them to act and change in various ways. A group of humans might have a message system consisting of four different services: telephone, fax, e-mail and "snail mail." Not all the humans would send and receive messages and influence one another by means of all four message services. Think of the message system among the fermions as four such message services, called forces. There is another class of particles that carry these messages among the fermions, and sometimes among themselves as well: "messenger" particles, more properly called "bosons." Apparently every particle in the universe is either a fermion or a boson.

One of the four fundamental forces of nature is gravity. One way of thinking about the gravitational force holding us to the Earth is as "messages" carried by bosons called gravitons between the particles of the atoms in your body and the particles of the atoms in the Earth, influencing these particles to draw closer to one another. Gravity is the weakest of the forces, but, as you'll see later, it is a very long-range force and acts on everything in the universe. When it adds up, it can dominate all the other forces.

A second force, the electromagnetic force, is messages carried by bosons called photons among the protons in the nucleus of an atom, between the protons and the electrons nearby, and among electrons. The electromagnetic force causes electrons to orbit the nucleus. On the level of everyday experience, photons show up as light, heat, radio waves, microwaves and other waves, all known as electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic force is also long-range and much stronger than gravity, but it acts only on particles with an electric charge.

A third message service, the strong nuclear force, causes the nucleus of an atom to hold together.

A fourth, the weak nuclear force, causes radioactivity and plays a necessary role in the formation of the elements in stars and in the early universe.

The gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force ... the activities of those four forces are responsible for all messages among all fermions in the universe and for all interactions among them. Without the four forces, every fermion (every particle of matter) would exist, if it existed at all, in isolation, with no means of contacting or influencing any other, oblivious to every other. To put it bluntly, whatever doesn't happen by means of one of the four forces doesn't happen. If that is true, a complete understanding of the forces would give us an understanding of the principles underlying everything that happens in the universe. Already we have a remarkably condensed rule book.

Physicists in the twentieth century were deeply involved in trying to understand how the four forces of nature operate and how they are related. In a human message system, we might discover that telephone, fax, and e-mail are not really so separate after all, but can be thought of as the same thing showing up in three different ways. That discovery would "unify" the three message services. In a similar way, physicists have sought, with some success, to unify the forces. Their ultimate goal is to find a theory that explains all four forces as one showing up in different ways — a theory that also unites both fermions and bosons in a single family. Such a theory would be a "unified theory."

A theory explaining the universe, the Theory of Everything, must go several steps further. Of particular interest to Stephen Hawking, it must answer the question, what was the universe like at the instant of beginning, before any time whatsoever had passed? Physicists phrase that question: what are the "initial conditions" or the "boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe"? Because this issue of boundary conditions has been and continues to be at the heart of Hawking's work, it behooves us to spend a little time with it.


Excerpted from Stephen Hawking by Kitty Ferguson. Copyright © 2013 Kitty Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kitty Ferguson has been writing and lecturing about science and scientists for over two decades, making the language and concepts of physics and cosmology understandable for audiences without a scientific background. Her 1991 biography of Stephen Hawking, written with his encouragement and help, was an international best-seller. She was a consultant for Hawking's book The Universe in a Nutshell. Kitty is the author of several books including The Fire in the Equations and The Music of Pythagoras. She has also been interviewed by Forbes Magazine, PBS, "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," and the BBC. She lectures widely in North America, and her appearances have included the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Hayden Planetarium in NYC, The Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and many universities. Kitty and her husband divide their time between Cambridge, England and South Carolina.

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Stephen Hawking 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story of a man with I brilliant mind. Inspiring tale of persistence in the face of a crippling desease.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. If you are interested about stephen hawkings life, you will too
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is verry long. It has 370 very long pages.