Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Brief History of Time

Errol Morris, 1991, 83m

The title derives from the book by Stephen Hawking on cosmology. Though ostensibly for the layman and without mathematics, the bulk of it is far beyond the capacity of even seasoned physicists. I was able to skim through it once upon a time and left with a nebulous awareness of awesome frontiers of science, but more importantly a sense of the vast expanses of space and time which we inhabit. Hawking never talks down to the layman, which is responsible for the popularity of his book, because it gives you a good feel for things, if not an understanding. It conveys without dilution a sense of what the universe looks like from the present frontiers of cosmology, and also a view of the unbelievable fruits of the workings of the engines of science, involving the concerted operation of the best minds around the world.

The movie is more about the man than his work--Morris could obviously not have handled that, nor would it be material for authentic documentary, abstruse as it is. It is an irony of life that a person blessed with so powerful an intellect should be struck at the age of twenty one with a disease which gradually crippled everything in him except what mattered most--his mental capacities.

We understand the phenomenal level of his talent when a former class fellow remarks, "We realized we were not just not in the same street, he was from a different planet." Now that he has acquired pop status we should not forget he occupied the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge which was once decorated by Sir Isaac Newton.

The juncture when he first learns about the nature of his illness, and the two or three years left to him, is portrayed with sensitivity. Hawking immediately understood and accepted the finality of the pronouncement with a degree of stoicism. But then he far outlived the scant years which the doctors pronounced as his remainder. He recalls learning with great life that his intellect would remain unimpaired, even as his body would wither away.

What he seems never to have lost to any significant degree is the zest for life and work. In spite of his gradually diminishing physical capabilities, he poured demonic energy into his work. He was hooked to science. In a sense one may say that he was in no way handicapped in performing what he was born for, and the disease brought his life into even greater focus, since little else remained. As one of the interviewees in the film remarks, what could have been a disability and an unbearable suffering for an average person was far less so for him.

Even if a bit slow, Morris has made a fine movie, which needed to be made.  Like everybody else I knew about this iconic cosmologist on a wheelchair who talks via a computer, having even read that book of his with scant understanding. But Morris makes his life come alive, cutting him to human size. We empathize with his suffering as well as his awesome passion. Platitudes about courage apart, Hawking is a rare case study of a man of science, about a man's consuming immersion in his work, and ultimately, of Man.

The drawing by William Blake portrays Newton.


Ronak M Soni said...

Is the drawing one of Newton playing with pebbles on the beach like in the famous passage?

S. M. Rana said...

Where on earth have you been Ronak? Busy with studies, I'm sure. I think the picture shows Newton with some kind of geometrical instrument such as we use in school. He's chartering the heavens, so to say. His imposing muscularity is reminiscent of Adam as depicted by Michaelangelo in his frescoe from the Sistine Chapel:

After all, Newton had one thing in common with Newton--an apple. This was noted by no less than Byron in his long poem Don Juan:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation—
'Tis said (for I'll not answer above ground
For any sage's creed or calculation)—
A mode of proving that the earth turn'd round
In a most natural whirl, called 'gravitation';
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall, or with an apple.

I thought this engraving by Blake a fitting description of Professor Hawking, depicting him as the titan that he is in his domain, rather than the cripple many think of him as.

We await your next literary output.

Ronak M Soni said...

Studying is about right.

Very nice excerpt from Don Juan, and a very appropriate comparison, I thought. Thanks for that.