If physics ever makes it to the movie theatres it is usually in the form of a science fiction. Not so in the British movie “The theory of everything”. The production of James Marsh (director) and Anthony McCarten (script) is a biopic: In its center stands the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and the relationship with his first wife Jane. The movie depicts the physical decline of the scientist, who is suffering from Motor Neuron Disease. It recounts how Hawking’s devoted wife cares selflessly for him, without regard for her own needs, and how she stays truthful to him.
When a physicist admits to being wrong it is often due to an unexpected success in his field. Such was the case when the British physicist Stephen Hawking lost a bet in the summer of 2012. Some years earlier he had wagered with a colleague from the USA that the Higgs-Boson would never be discovered. The particle’s existence was then proven at CERN in July 2012. Hawking had to admit his defeat when the news from the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva reached him. “It seems that I just lost a hundred dollars”, expressed the severely disabled physicist, who was by then confined to a wheelchair and could only communicate with the help of a special technical device.
Trip to the world of particle physics
Cosmology and not elementary particles stands in fact in the center of Stephen Hawking´s scientific research. The theoretical physicist became known to a broad audience with his book ‘a brief history of time’ that was published in 1988. This popular scientific publication deals with the origin of the universe, black holes and astrophysical questions. But of course Hawking was confronted again and again in his career with problems concerning particle physics - as shown in the movie ‘The theory of everything’ that is now playing in the cinemas.
At the outset of the movie we see Hawking in the 1960s as a talented doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. During a colloquium, Hawking and his fellow students are given 10 unsolvable questions, which they are supposed to answer. Among them are questions concerning particle physics: a discipline that was aiming to bring order to an increasingly confusing ‘particle zoo’ of newly discovered elementary particles. The movie shows how Hawking effortlessly solves most of the ‘unsolvable’ questions. He arrives at the colloquium late and – asked for the solutions - searches the pocket of his jacket for a crumpled piece of paper and announces with dry humor: “Unfortunately I have only nine”.
In spite of the physical decay
Stephen Hawking seems to solve the most challenging physical problems in his sleep. The movie depicts him as a genius, a reborn Einstein who conceives hitherto unthinkable theories on the all- encompassing question: Does the universe have limits and if so: Can this theory be condensed in one comprehensive formula?. “The theory of everything” comes alive through the presentation of this exceptional talent that is hidden in an increasingly decaying body. It appears as if Hawking defiantly opposes his physical decline with a boundless creativity in his scientific thinking.
The actual story of the film is the romance of Hawking and his fellow student and later wife Jane Wilde. As a scholar of literature Jane is not only the counterpart to her lover regarding their fields of studies, she is furthermore a practicing Christian. Hawking meanwhile unabashedly celebrates his atheism. “I have a little problem with the concept of a dictator in the sky”, he tells Jane when he explains his studies during their first encounter. Cosmology he says “is a kind of religion for intelligent atheists”.
Yes to Life
Despite his advancing disability Jane stands firmly by her husband. A key moment of the movie describes the subtle beginning of the love affair between Jane and her choir leader Jonathan. During a camping trip the two receive the shocking news that Hawking has collapsed during a concert visit and is in a coma. The incident is so severe that the doctors offer Jane to end life support. Jane rejects this audacious recommendation for active euthanasia. She does not give Stephen up to free the way for a relationship with Jonathan.
Stephen Hawking survives the pneumonia but a life saving tracheotomy leaves him unable to speak. Once again Jane accompanies her husband back into life. She pulled him back to life and physics and away from depression, as she had done many years before, when Hawking, diagnosed with the Motor Neuron disease was given only a couple of years to live. In January 2015 Hawking celebrated his 75th birthday.
First the theory, then the experiment
“The theory of everything” does not explain modern physics. A movie aiming at entertaining its audience can hardly do justice to the complex thinking of a leading cosmologist. Nevertheless the film treats Hawking’s thinking with respect. It depicts the scientist as a theoretical physicist, who by his thinking alone opened up new dimensions of knowledge. In one scene Hawking’s professor leads his young talented researcher into a physical laboratory in Cambridge. This is where Thompson discovered the electron and Rutherford split the atom, states the Professor. Hawking strolls along the measuring instruments that these experimental physicists used for their experiments. Finally his attention is drawn not to one of the devices but to a blackboard in the room. It represents the work of the theorist, who uses the board for equations and formulas to present and discuss his explanatory model.
Develop the mathematics to this theory
Theoretical physics was Stephen Hawking’s vocation and it still is, even though in the meantime he has ended his academic teaching career. Hawking knew how to explain his fascinating ideas to a broad public and to raise its interest for physics. In a beautiful scene in the movie the young Hawking is shown attending a lecture where he develops the idea that the world came into existence from a single Black Hole. While the audience, sitting in their comfortable movie seats is still wondering what a Black Hole might look like, Hawking’s professor is pushing his student further: “Go on, work on the mathematics”. And this is exactly what Stephen Hawking did.