Movie's glimpse of Stephen Hawking's life proves truth of mind over matter

October 08, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

For centuries, deep thinkers have wrestled with the chicken-egg thing, as in, which came first? But "A Brief History of Time" asks a more interesting question: do men become what they study or do they study what they become?

That's the pertinent issue regarding the "star" of "A Brief History of Time" (opening today at the Charles Theatre), the brilliant Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, author of the best seller of the same name and current holder of a chair in physics once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

Hawking, 50, has spent his adult life pondering black holes, those sucking bogs in the cosmos where space and time collapse into increasingly hefty vortexes of nothingness. They are, many believe, the end of things. Hawking has an elegant phrase for the singularity of such phenomenon: "infinite density, negative space."

But even as he grappled with this conundrum of the great emptiness beyond the Milky Way, so too was Hawking's body cruelly imitating the object of his scrutiny: It was achieving something like negative space by virtue of Anterior Lateral Sclerosis; it corkscrewed inward, locking him in a wheelchair and ultimately robbing him of the use of all his limbs and taking from him the ability to write or speak. Were it not for the computer, he would have become an island of himself. His mind, meanwhile penetrating the mysteries of cosmology, approached (or so it seems to laymen) infinite density.

Fortunately, the computer enables him to bridge the gap between mind and society. He selects a word from an on-screen menu and with his bent finger on a mouse manages to poke a button; the word is spoken by the computer synthesizer in the bell-clear tones of a new machine.

Yet Hawking's story, well told by the documentarian Errol Morris (of "Thin Blue Line" fame), is far from being a depressing story of genius struck down. It is instead a story of genius flowering in rocky soil. Hawking, as he merrily admits and his mother Isobel cheerfully acknowledges, was well on his way to being a complete wastrel as he skated his lazy way through his Oxford undergraduate studies on about an hour's worth of work a day. Citing Johnson's bromide that the prospect of being hanged in the morning wonderfully concentrates the mind, Isobel points out that when he learned he was losing his body in his early 20s, it somehow saved her son's soul. She goes so far as to call him "lucky."

Actually, it is we who are lucky. Hawking, as his physical abilities decreased, found that he had to concentrate in areas where symbolic or representational thinking was more important than calculation, which led him into the endlessly paradoxical world of theoretical physics and contemplation of ultimate questions of destiny. Does the universe, like a man, have a life span? Will it end in a black hole, melting down into a single ingot of incomprehensible weight; or will it instead reach apogee and then begin to run backward like a movie reel? Will we get another life on the downside, beginning on our deathbeds and returning to our wombs. (No thanks!)

More: if you go "into" a black hole, do you achieve immortality, in the sense that in its density not only gravity but also time ceases to exist? And what would happen if you took a watch into a black hole -- would it ever reach the 24th hour or would each second elongate as density increased into it was frozen eternally at a picosecond before perfect midnight?

Morris's film is a deft examination of these issues -- derived from the book -- but also understands that Hawking himself is too charismatic to be kept off camera. Thus the film also manages at the same time to sketch a brief history of Stephen Hawking from his own and a variety of other points of view (he's mordantly funny, by the way) and to suggest a little of the give and take at the highest and most refined levels of physics culture. But most importantly, it imprints indelibly the oldest of moral lessons: that flesh is nothing, that spirit is all.

'A Brief History of Time'

Directed by Errol Morris

Released by Triton

Unrated

***

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