Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Theory of Everything: New Stephen Hawking Biopic Released

Tomorrow a new film which chronicles the personal life of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is released to US audiences. The Theory of Everything is an adaptation of a memoir by Hawking's first wife, Jane Wilde, and centers around their time together in Cambridge during the 1960s as Hawking begins his PhD research and struggles against the onset of ALS (i.e. Lou Gehrig's disease).

The movie is reportedly first and foremost a personal story between Stephen Hawking and Jane, and the groundbreaking physics for which Hawking is famous takes a back seat.

Simulated black hole. Credit: Alain r via Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Hawking is one of the most recognizable theoretical physicists, both in academic corridors and in popular media. Within the field of astrophysics, he has greatly advanced our understanding of black holes and the singularity known as the Big Bang at the beginning of our universe. By weaving together the complex theories of general relativity (important for very massive objects) and quantum mechanics (which describes very very small objects), Hawking was the first to predict that black holes can lose small amounts energy, or radiation, over time. This theory, now known as Hawking radiation, is most likely the work for which he could win a Nobel prize.
Stephen Hawking is director of research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge. Image courtesy of Richard Butler
Dennis Overbye (New York Times) has had a chance to review the film and praises its heart and the performance by leading actor Eddie Redmayne for personifying the crippling effects of ALS.

But Overbye notes that the process of actually doing science could have been portrayed a bit more accurately. He correctly emphasizes that science is not advanced by isolated and magical flashes of genius granted to a privileged few, but rather by shear perseverance in collaboration with others, building incrementally on the knowledge within a field. To suggest otherwise is to negate the years of effort, uncertainty, false starts, and collaborative work that goes into a revolutionary idea.
Many famous scientists have also stressed this.

"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."
— Thomson Edison, Inventor
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
— Isaac Newton, Physicist and Mathematician
"What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed in the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens in long years of lonely work!"
— Albert Einstein, Physicist
Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, where Stephen Hawking completed his PhD work.
Credit: Andrew Dunn via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant physicists alive today, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his life, and I very much look forward to watching The Theory of Everything. I'm also anticipating some familiar scenes — many of the scenes were filmed in my college, St. John's, while I was a graduate student in Cambridge.

And Hawking himself has lent a personal touch to the film. His computerized voice helps narrate the film and he even met with actor Redmayne on occasion, lending approval to what must have been a strange thing to witness — a film about yourself played by someone else. 

Tomorrow is a big day for black holes in movies: Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is also being released and we look forward to bringing you a review of the physics next week!

By Tamela Maciel, also known as "pendulum"


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