Stephen Hawking the man behind the science and The Theory of Everything

in Nonfiction by

It’s not often that phrases like “theoretical physics,” “quantum gravity,” and “cosmology” ignite the passions of your everyday filmgoer. But all that changes when you add Stephen Hawking—undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest living scientists—to the mix, and sprinkle in a pair of young up-and-coming British stars who, together, have great screen chemistry.

Director James Marsh, who’s best known for his critically acclaimed documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, brings Hawking’s difficult, yet wholly amazing, life to screen in The Theory of Everything, which opens November 7 and has already garnered positive film festival reviews.

Hawking, diagnosed at 21 with a motor neuron disease similar to ALS (remember the Ice Bucket Challenge?), is one of the few contemporary scientists who’s been able to blend cutting-edge theories with a broad-spectrum appeal. As Neil deGrasse Tyson (who’s also a cosmologist, in addition to being an astrophysicist) did earlier this year with his landmark television series Cosmos, Hawking makes science accessible to those of us not lucky enough to have a doctorate in theoretical physics. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, arguably spawned the subgenre of popular science. Translated into 35 languages, the bestseller, with over 10 million copies sold in the two-plus decades since its release, addresses concepts like the Big Bang and black holes, putting them in terms that a layperson can not only understand, but appreciate as well. This isn’t your high school physics textbook; Brief History is the kind of book you can take on vacation and happily read for hours by the pool or in the ski lodge.

A Brief History of Time Cover

Much of the film’s appeal rests on its two leads, Eddie Redmayne (Hawking) and Felicity Jones (Hawking’s first wife, Jane). Redmayne is most widely recognized as Marius from the 2013 film adaptation of Les Misérables, though devoted fans may also know him from his role as Angel Clare from the 2008 BBC miniseries Tess of the D’Ubervilles. American audiences might not be as familiar with Jones, though she had a memorable performance in the 2011 indie Like Crazy. She’s also had a guest spot on Girls and a supporting role in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, as Felicia.

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Hawking credits his relationship with Jane (they met through Hawking’s sister prior to his diagnosis) as one of the key reasons he pushed through his education despite his failing health. The pair married in 1965, and we’ll leave it to the film (or the Internet, if you can’t sit through the biopic without checking) to reveal how long the union lasted (hint: quite a while). Jane is no shrinking violet and is a constant companion of Hawking, providing him with much-needed physical and mental support. A scientist in her own right—a physicist to be exact—Jane worked tirelessly with Hawking to help him achieve his lofty intellectual goals. Upon initial diagnosis, doctors gave Hawking roughly two years to live; he’s now 72.

While it’s certainly not required reading for the film, you won’t be sorry if you spend a week or so bulking up on your Hawking background with A Brief History of Time, or even one of the children’s books he co-authored with his daughter, Lucy, beginning with 2007’s George’s Secret Key to the Universe. Even if you don’t absorb all of the scientific particulars, both Hawking’s work and this fascinating film will show you just how far perseverance and a curious mind can take you in life, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

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Jordan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon, after spending six years in NYC for college and graduate school (where she earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia) before realizing that her heart belonged in the Pacific Northwest. She (hopefully) puts that degree to good use writing for BookTrib and Publishers Weekly about the vast quantity of books she reads. While Jordan’s literary diet is largely crime fiction—as she was raised, often literally, in Portland’s only mystery bookstore—she’s perfectly content to read novels and nonfiction that lack a murder because good writing transcends labels. Follow her on Twitter @jordanfoster13.

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