Stephen Hawking by Leonard Mlodinow review – a memoir of friendship

Hawking’s collaborator retells his story with humour and fondness, and helps us know the famous scientist as he really was

we all feel we know the story of Stephen Hawking: his undergraduate years at Oxford; the shocking diagnosis of motor neurone disease when he was 21 and the slow decline of his physical body for half a century; his two marriages; his research into the nature of black holes that established him as one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation; and of course the publication of A Brief History of Time, which turned him into an icon, the genius in the wheelchair. A number of biographies already exist, and there is a memoir entitled, inevitably, My Brief History, as well as the biopic, The Theory of Everything, in which Hawking is played by Eddie Redmayne. But this latest, highly enjoyable, book is different.

What is refreshing is the absence of the usual adulation of an exceptional mind and celebration of triumph over adversity. In their place is a tender account, full of genuine affection, which doesn’t shy away from Hawking’s intense focus, self-centredness, unpredictability and the difficulties faced by his wives and carers. The author, Leonard Mlodinow, is in an almost unique position. A fellow physicist and science writer, he worked closely with Hawking over many years during which they co-wrote two bestselling books: A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design, the collaboration on and writing of which forms the backdrop for this memoir.

For those who have followed Hawking’s career there is a retelling of well-known stories, such as his bets with fellow physicists over certain theoretical predictions, and his views on a final theory of everything, as well as his famous sense of fun and adventure, whether joining Mlodinow for an afternoon of punting on the River Cam or hitching a ride on the famous “vomit comet” to experience zero gravity.

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