‘The Theory of Everything’ – A Hollywood Take on Science

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The new movie, The Theory of Everything, is about the life of Stephen Hawking from his graduation from Oxford to his becoming famous and then separating from his devoted wife of over a quarter century. Please, everyone, go to this movie. Why? Because it’s a good story, well acted and directed, and because you will be supporting the concept of telling the stories of scientists in movies. We must have more of this.

Stephen has a special resonance with me for strictly non-scientific reasons. We were born in the same year. We both entered prestigious colleges at the same age, 17, and went on to prestigious graduate schools for our doctorates. We were both married in the same year, he to Jane and I to Jayne. Of course, there are innumerable differences to balance these few coincidences. I majored in chemistry, he in physics. I have enjoyed rather good health overall. He is outrageously famous, while I labor in obscurity. And so it goes.

The Theory of EverythingBefore getting to the science, I’ll praise Eddie Redmayne for his uncanny portrayal of Stephen Hawking. From the early stumbling to the later crablike fingers and the difficulty in forming words, he nails Hawking in a manner that I never would have believed. Especially moving are the scenes in which he has the twinkle and slight smile showing Hawking’s personal joy at special moments and his puckish sense of humor.

This is a wonderful love story in which personal connection overcomes insurmountable odds. Jane (Wilde) Hawking’s (played by Felicity Jones) indomitable spirit lifts Stephen Hawking to the threshold of his greatness. We see this spirit and unwillingness to give up displayed several times in the movie. The very fact that Jane has three children, the last when Stephen is unable to move from his wheelchair speaks volumes about her. Ms. Jones brings a real sense of what the actual Mrs. Hawking must have felt to many of the scenes in the movie. 

Hawking has met this remarkable woman before his diagnosis. When asking about what the disease, motor neuron disease or ALS, will do to him, he is particularly interested in its impact on his mind. He is told that his thoughts will continue as always, which creates a very momentary sense of relief as though a death sentence had been commuted. Immediately after, the doctor says, “It’s just that eventually no one will know what they are.” At this time, everyone expects that the disease will kill Hawking due to respiratory failure in about two years. Despite the awful prognosis, Jane perseveres and marries Hawking.

This giant of science utters these simple words to his wife, “Look what we created.” At this moment, we see Stephen Hawking the man, not the great scientist or the invalid or even the humorist.

The scenes with him and his children are wonderfully warm. They don’t treat him as an invalid but as a father and friend, inasmuch as we can tell. He was offered a knighthood late in the movie and sits with Jane afterward, talking. The children are playing in front of them. This giant of science utters these simple words to his wife, “Look what we created.” At this moment, we see Stephen Hawking the man, not the great scientist or the invalid or even the humorist. The movie tells us that we’re all humans.

You may read into this review that the movie is maudlin or mawkish. Not so. The direction by James Marsh delivers a sense of reality and of humanity without resorting to sentimental tricks. It does have happy and sad scenes that may evoke tears, but it does not exploit these to play the audience. They happen, just as in most lives, and the scenes move on.

The movie does take liberties with the story. For example, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), who takes over nursing Prof. Hawking late in the movie, has a much darker side than we are allowed to see.

It’s the science that bothers me the most. Early in the movie, a group of students is discussing black holes in 1963 before the term had been coined. It’s first print appearance was in 1964, and it took Princeton physicist John Wheeler to popularize the term in a lecture in 1967. Okay, the writers did not wish to inflict arcane names, such as “dark star” or “frozen star” — early names, for this phenomenon on the audience and took a short cut. Still, that bothered me as I watched.

It’s the science that bothers me the most. Early in the movie, a group of students is discussing black holes in 1963 before the term had been coined.

God and religion figure more heavily in this movie than they probably did in Prof. Hawking’s life. He makes a statement early on that suggests this: “A physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a supernatural creator.”

Much later, he says, “What one believes is irrelevant.” Finally, near the end when asked, “Is that a sin?”, Hawking replies, “Wrong man to ask.”

Stephen Hawking is an atheist. Jane Hawking is quite religious. Religion must play a role in this movie. Stephen Hawking is one of our greatest living scientists. Science must play a role in this movie. The director, James Marsh, and screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, have downplayed some really important science and have emphasized religious matter unnecessarily. I wouldn’t mind the latter were it not for the former.

Stephen Hawking’s probably greatest discovery as a scientist has to do with black holes and their life expectancy. All scientists had believed that an object with no way for anything to escape could not decay or ever disappear. One problem with analyzing black holes is that you must think both relativistically (as in Einstein’s general theory of relativity) and quantum mechanically (the nonintuitive physics of the very small). The movie takes a stab at this dichotomy using peas for quantum mechanics and potatoes for relativity. At least these two separate realms of theory were mentioned. Bits of salt and watermelons would have been closer to reality because one is inorganic and quite tiny while the other is organic and really large. Unifying them would require escaping from biology and into a different realm entirely. It would have been much more apt.

Nothing can escape a black hole, not even light. However, just outside of the hole’s event horizon, effectively its edge, something is happening that occurs throughout space. It’s a quantum effect whereby virtual or “phantom” particles and their antiparticles are being created all of the time out of nothing. Because they quickly recombine and annihilate each other, everything balances out, and the laws of thermodynamics are not violated.

The quantum world of the extremely tiny meets the relativistic world of the very large near a black hole’s event horizon. Those pairs of particles forming there have the possibility of a different result. One of the phantom particles may be nearer the horizon than the other. Even though their separation is very tiny, the gravitation field changes significantly over short distances near a black hole. The nearer phantom particle can be pulled into the black hole, while its partner remains outside and becomes a real particle. All over the region near the event horizon, according to the Hawking radiation theory, real particles are blooming like daffodils on a spring day. The energy to create these particles must come out of the black hole, a result that has quantum mechanics triumphing over relativity in a manner of speaking. Black holes evaporate, albeit very slowly, and any we can observe absorb radiation and matter much more rapidly than they lose energy. Hawking radiation has not yet been observed experimentally, preventing him from winning a Nobel Prize for his work.

If you’ve managed to make it through the last three paragraphs, then you have some idea regarding what the writer, McCarten, had to deal with. While not a trivial task, visual media have ways to translate such ideas into understandable images. I think that we would be much better served by some real science than by peas and potatoes.

To be completely fair with Mr. McCarten, I realize he had to sell his script to skeptical financiers. Of this process, he said that there was a “nagging doubt on the part of financiers that it might not be all that profitable” to make this movie. You may also be interested to know that Hawking’s famous sense of humor, very much on display in the movie, came mostly from McCarten’s pen as did approximately “95% of the dialog” according to him.

He kept on with this difficult project because “it was the opportunity of a lifetime.” He acknowledged that this is a typical cliché that he insists was nevertheless true. He really seemed to get into the idea of showing the human side of the main characters, for example the incredible effort Jane Hawking had to make to work with her husband for 25 years and the remarkable world of cosmology. Hawking was a stubborn and proud man if we are to believe all of the stories about him.

In the end, McCarten must have felt good about the film. While creating it, and he is one of the producers, he felt that “it was morally incumbent on me that [Hawking] approve of the film.” Sneaking glances at Hawking while he was watching the screening, he could see the slight smile that Stephen is capable of and noted the tear from his eye at the end. Then, McCarten was “showered with gifts” from Hawking afterward. Hawking approved.

Go see this movie. Enjoy the story. Know that you can triumph over adversity. Just this year, Stephen Hawking gave a guest lecture at Caltech, my alma mater. I tried to get tickets, but it was too quickly sold out. If he could do this, you can accomplish anything. All you require is spirit and a great partner.

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