Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife, has written a book about her life together with Stephen, which has recently appeared here in the US under the title Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. At around 400 pages, it’s an abridged version of the 600 page Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen, which appeared in the UK back in 1999. A US production company, Film and Music Entertainment (FAME), has acquired an option to make a movie of the book (weirdly enough, the contract is on-line), but I don’t know whether the movie is actually going to get made.
The Hawking’s separation in 1990 and later divorce was widely covered in the media, and the book doesn’t dwell on the depressing details. Stephen went to live with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason (who at the time was married), and later married her. Jane later married Jonathan Jones, a musician she had met a decade earlier, partly through her church choir, and who developed a close relationship with her and the rest of the Hawking family during the 80s. At the time of the UK edition of the book, there was little contact between Jane and Stephen, but it appears that Stephen is now in the process of getting divorced from Mason, and has re-entered Jane’s life.
Up until the publication and huge success of A Brief History of Time, the Hawkings were not especially well-off, and dependent on others (including the MacArthur Foundation) for the high costs associated with Stephen’s care. After 1989 though, the book and other projects brought in huge sums of money, which made him a wealthy man and perhaps played some sort of role in the collapse of the marriage.
The Hawkings were married back in 1965, at a time when Stephen’s illness had already become apparent, and his prognosis for long-term survival was not good at all. For the next 25 years, Jane spent most of her time in the back-breaking labor of caring for an invalid husband while raising three children. While Stephen went from success to success, the center of attention due to his brilliant scientific work and triumph over his disability, Jane received little support, encouragement, or recognition for the sacrifices she was making, and one would have to be a saint to not develop some resentment for the situation and for the way it ended. She tells the whole story in some detail, and it’s in many ways a rather sad one.
Among the sources of conflict between them were: religion (she was a believer, he a fervent atheist), his family (described as definitely not nice to her), and his devotion to physics:
I sensed that there was yet another partner lurking in our already overcrowded marriage. The fourth partner first appeared in the form of a trusted and quiescent friend, signalling the way to success and fulfilment for those who followed her. In fact she proved to be a relentless rival, as exacting as any mistress, an inexorable Siren, luring her devotees into deep pools of obsession. She was none other than Physics, cited by Einstein’s first wife as the correspondent in divorce proceedings.
She describes how, during his work on black holes leading up to the discovery of Hawking radiation, Stephen would isolate himself:
For Stephen those periods of intense concentration may have been useful exercises in cultivating that silent, inner strength which would enable him to think in eleven dimensions. Unable to tell whether it was oblivion or indifference to my need to talk that sealed him off so hermetically, I found those periods sheer torture, especially when, as sometimes happened, they were accompanied by long sessions of Wagnerian opera, particularly The Ring Cycle, played at full volume on the radio or the record player. It was then, as I felt my own voice stifled and my own spontaneity suppressed inside me, that I grew to hate Wagner.
Jane also tells the story of Stephen’s first public talk on black hole radiation, after which the chairman of the session, J.G. Taylor:
…sprang to his feet, blustering, “Well, this is quite preposterous! I have never heard anything like it. I have no alternative but to bring this session to an immediate close!”
After this brusque cut-off of any questions, she describes how later she observed:
Still blustering and indignantly muttering to his students, J.G. Taylor stood behind me in the queue, unaware of my identity. I was rehearsing a few cutting remarks in Stephen’s defence when I heard him splutter, “We must get that paper out straight away!”
After she reported this to Stephen, he sent his paper off immediately to Nature, where the referee turned out to be Taylor himself. The article was first rejected, then finally accepted after a second referee was consulted. It appeared in the March 1 1974 issue with the title Black Hole Explosions?. Taylor’s paper (with P.C.W. Davies as co-author) arguing that Hawking was wrong appeared a few months later as Do Black Holes Really Explode?. After writing many papers on string theory during the late eighties, more recently Taylor has devoted his time to the study of neural nets and consciousness.
While Jane quite liked many of the relativist colleagues of Stephen’s that she was meeting, especially if they weren’t in a group talking about physics, she was much less impressed by the particle theorists that Stephen started spending his time with after the mid-seventies as his work concentrated on quantum gravity and unification:
Nor, I have to confess, did the set of scientists with whom Stephen was now associating attract me in the least. On the whole, particle physicists were a dry, obsessive bunch of boffins, little concerned with personal contact but very concerned with their own scientific reputations. They were much more aggressively competitive than the relaxed, friendly relativists with whom we had associated in the past.
Despite Stephen’s disability, the Hawkings did an immense amount of traveling, especially for professional purposes, and Jane describes her impressions of the places they went and people they met. One of the few things she gets wrong is the name of Andrei Linde’s wife, Renata Kallosh, who they met on a trip to Moscow. Linde is now one of the most fervent proponents of the anthropic principle, which appears at one point in the book as Jane tells about early debates between Stephen and Brandon Carter during the late sixties and early seventies. She describes it as philosophically close to the medieval Ptolemaic universe, trying to put man at the center of all things.
The book is mostly not a book about physics though, but very much about what it was like to struggle with caring for someone coping with a grave disability, a difficult and not always rewarding task even in this remarkable case of someone who has overcome obstacles and achieved about the highest pinnacle of success possible.