It visits Hawking just as he is transitioning into a rare planetary superstardom ... it captures Hawking’s thirst for that kind of recognition—or, at the very least, his unalloyed delight at securing it. More than anything else, the story underscores the sheer improbability of this entire affair. People had poured into an auditorium to hear an immobile man with a computerized voice speak about bewildering theories in physics—a prospect so audacious and remote, at most other times, that Hawking himself was unprepared for it ... Seife provides a lively survey of Hawking’s career, although somewhat perplexingly he unrolls his story backward—death to life, nuts to soup. His purpose is not to reveal Stephen Hawking the human being ... have done that with varying degrees of success, although Seife builds that portrait out with fresh interviews and research. But he’s really in pursuit of a more intriguing quarry: Hawking’s relationship with his public, and the source of his celebrity ... Seife is a clear interpreter of Hawking’s physics, but he is also determined to be a cool judge of Hawking’s career. Some of his discoveries are new and disconcerting ... Some of Seife’s other criticisms—designed to shake the myth of Hawking’s all-surpassing brilliance—might baffle the professional scientist. He notes that some of Hawking’s ideas were wrong, and that he came upon a proof for Hawking radiation only while trying to demolish another physicist’s preliminary work in that direction—except that both mistakes and bloody-mindedness are essential to scientific advance ... His project is to appraise the gap between Hawking’s private personality and his public persona, to show how—unsurprisingly, as with any darling of the press—the persona towered over and obscured the personality, and to reveal Hawking to be the deliberate architect of that persona.
a tough-minded portrait of the theoretical physicist ... the title accurately captures the book’s iconoclastic spirit ... deeply researched and richly sourced. It incorporates fresh interviews with many people who interacted closely with Hawking, including students, collaborators and intellectual rivals ... Seife succeeds in serving up something of the flavor of those difficult and rather esoteric ideas, which are the heart of Hawking’s contribution to science, in a way that won’t give general readers indigestion. But it may leave you hungry for more ... It’s worth noting Seife’s odd choice to narrate his story using reverse chronology. It’s an unusual but stimulating structure ... the time-reversed narrative is not well matched to how readers usually understand stories, nor to the logical evolution of ideas. Seife has performed an important service by documenting Stephen Hawking’s life as it actually happened. It is what a great scientist deserves, and should expect.
Joyce Carol Oates once proposed the term 'pathography' for the subspecies of biography meant to deflate and demean its subject ... Seife is not committing pathography. He aims to find the human lost inside the myth, so he must first chip away a gaudy shell ... Perhaps inspired by Hawking’s own taste for time reversal, he has arranged this biography in reverse chronological order ... but telling Hawking’s story backward creates challenges for the reader, especially because it means reversing the scientific story as well. Results precede their causes, sometimes bewilderingly. We don’t get to Hawking radiation and the Hawking area theorem till near the end ... Meanwhile, we take in the brutal progress of his illness ... The metamorphosis at the book’s heart is, when it comes, dramatic.