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'Hawking' review: Science and shtick

Stephen Hawking outside DAMTP, Department of Applied Mathematics

Stephen Hawking outside DAMTP, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Cambridge. Credit: Jason Bye


WHEN|WHERE Wednesday night at 10 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Stephen Hawking, who just turned 72, tells his life story in his own words, from his boyhood in Oxford, England, to the onset of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to courting and marrying Jane Wilde -- his first wife, interviewed extensively here. And, of course, it details some of his major discoveries while at Cambridge University: the notion that the "Big Bang" had a beginning point, and that radiation could "leak" from a black hole. Mostly, viewers learn of an utterly indomitable spirit. "I have lived over two-thirds of my life with the threat of death hanging over me," he says. "I have developed a desire to make the most of each and every minute."

MY SAY There are two physicists of the 20th century who are household names, and Hawking is one of them (you don't have to be an Einstein to guess the other). But why Hawking? This film certainly begins to offer many reasons, though one stands out far above the others: his spectacular triumph of mind over body. With a little help from his friends, Hawking has carved a nearly mythic place in the universe for himself -- or, at the very least, in the popular imagination -- and justifiably so. What's missing is a deeper exploration of that remarkable mind. "Hawking" is an hourlong version of a film released last fall that ran 90 minutes, so obviously something got sacrificed, most likely that fuller understanding of both the man and the science. "Hawking" whizzes past black holes and "singularity" and "Hawking Radiation" with scarcely a glance. By turns, the science starts to take a backseat to the celebrity, and by the end of this, he's got cameos on "The Simpsons" and is doing shtick with Jim Carrey. You also come to realize, however, that there's an important role for that in his life, too. "Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humor."

BOTTOM LINE As billed, an intimate look at a genius, but the science gets a major haircut here.


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