Review: Biography: Stephen Hawking: His Life And Work by Kitty Ferguson
Bantam Press, £20
The new biography of Stephen Hawking is relentlessly upbeat, laments Ed Lake
'Between film roles," Stephen Hawking supposedly told his fellow cast-members on Star Trek: the Next Generation, "I like to solve physics problems."
You don't get to be the most recognisable scientist on the planet just by doing science, of course, and Hawking's cameos on The Simpsons and various pop records represent only one of his self-promotional techniques.
There are also his own films and television programmes and his frequent popular books, heralded by pronouncements on such cherished topics of undergraduate speculation as the threat posed by super-intelligent computers, the viability of space colonisation and the existence of God.
When he speaks, as he did last week on his 70th birthday, the world takes notice. That's partly down to his distinguished career but, let's not be squeamish, partly because his motor neurone disease and voice synthesiser have made him a convenient symbol for the life of the mind.
That aura of mystical detachment doesn't quite stand up to examination, however.
"Was it just an accident that he always seemed to come up with attention-getting statements whenever public and media attention appeared to require a boost?" asks Kitty Ferguson in her starry-eyed biography. As one of Hawking's assistants told her: "He isn't stupid, you know."
One starts to suspect that his real genius may be for judging the appetites of the public.
He wrote A Brief History of Time to pay for his daughter's school fees, signing with the mass-market publisher Bantam because he wanted to reach airport bookstands.
"It has sold one copy for every 750 men, women and children in the world," he boasted to an interviewer in 1995, "so there are 749 to go."
Given the enthusiasm with which Hawking has kept readers abreast of the shifts in his thinking, it's a pity that Ferguson's take on his life and work so emphasises the latter.
One looks forward to the kind of muckraking biography his celebrity cries out for, full of below-stairs interviews and an extended wallow in the abuse allegations directed at his second wife.
As it is, Ferguson barely acknowledges this "difficult-to-understand chapter" in her hero's story, an attitude that wouldn't wash if she was writing about someone as downmarket as, say, TS Eliot.
Indeed, there's so little that's dark or sad about her Hawking, the effect is almost sinister. Perhaps he really is just a permanently upbeat and sunny chap.
On the other hand, Ferguson helped edit The Universe in a Nutshell for him and in 1991 she made her name with Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything. Their children went to the same school.
Neither distant enough for full impartiality nor close enough to gossip and settle scores, she seems both dazzled by her subject and anxiously aware of him reading over her shoulder.
At her most incisive we get a few endearing foibles: he was a lazy undergraduate, an alarming driver and likes a bet. Regarding the rumour that he has a special file of insults saved in his voice computer, Ferguson pleads ignorance.
We do, however, learn more than enough about the property market in 1960s Cambridge and the automatic blinds in the windows of his current office.
As far as the science goes, Ferguson gives a lucid account of his important work on black holes and stays quite intelligible even when discussing his ideas about the overall shape of space-time.
The physicist Andrei Linde described one big picture that Hawking has tentatively endorsed as follows: "The universe... consists of many inflating balls that produce new balls, which in turn produce more balls, ad infinitum."
Ferguson's writing can feel a bit like that, but she keeps things brisk.
On the other hand, so does Hawking, and he is a more entertaining writer. That's partly because of his willingness to be a little obnoxious, declaring for no very good reason that philosophy is dead or that the universe doesn't need God.
He has said he'll only write his own memoir if he runs out of money, which seems unlikely given his past successes. Still, if he ever does, it's hard to believe he'll come up with something as bland as this.