It is not honestly difficult to keep this brief. I read A Brief History of Time for the first time in around 1998 not so long before I attended Kidderminster College to study what were by then avowedly not scientific subjects. I returned to it in 2022 upon picking up a Czech copy that my “co-worker”, “Penny” has beside a number of popular bestsellers and self help books on her shelf.
It is readable still. As why would it not be after all, since, though it is intimidating to many, it is a work of popular science, intended to be approachable. Famously, it contains only one formula: E=mc2.
As far as the book is concerned, I have little to say but that one should read it. There is, equally, a more accessible version, A Briefer History of Time.
As for Hawking himself, I remember something else and perhaps something more. I was in the last but one class in primary school. It must have been sometime in 1987, perhaps 1988 (I have to count backwards from the fall of the Berlin Wall which we watched on television in top class).1 One lad in our class was not so gifted academically. We’ll call him Calvin. He was, rather stereotypically, great at football, pretty lively, funny, popular, and periodically cruel. A “student”, I forget his name, would come in to help him. This young man was a little grey, a little old before his time, something like one of those perennial students in Chekhov plays. Let’s call him Ken. These were the days before diagnoses and personal assistants so I can only guess at this man’s situation but suppose him to have been overqualified for more or less anything in the town, and likely not altogether gifted at life as such.
Hawking was big at the time. Already he had been speaking through a computer for a couple of years2 and had used this technology to finish writing A Brief History of Time. Looking up the dates now, the book, which as we know was to become an unlikely bestseller, was published in April, 1988. Which would explain, then, how it was that a magazine, or something featuring his photograph, made its way into our classroom that day. However it was with that, some of the kids must have commented somehow on how he looked. There were plenty of pretty nasty words to choose from at that period, and kids would, as is inevitable, have known them all.
I don’t remember how Ken explained what a great man this was. Nor do I remember Calvin’s response. What I do remember is that, though Ken had not a clue how to dress and was rather wooden in his manner, Calvin would invariably stick up for him, grateful for all of his help in the classroom, and so Ken had a lot more street cred than might have been his due. We did not, as a class, always listen, but I suspect on this occasion that we did. It was years before Hawking would become a genuine celebrity, featured in The Simpsons no less, but how many kids in similar circumstances would have learned in like manner, not only about science, but about respect?
Photo: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network, available on Wikimedia Commons listed as public domain