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Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything
It was both humbling and encouraging to watch Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything with my precocious 10 year old son. Humbling, because this kid was explaining all sorts of backstory to various concepts being presented in the documentary. Encouraging because those very explanations show how much of Hawking's incredible analysis of literally mind-boggling ideas have made it into the scientific curriculum for even kids nowadays. I may still think of "string theory" as the Murphy's Law that requires drawers full of rope and twine to become hopelessly entangled, but it's comforting to know that a new generation of perhaps future scientists are being schooled in some of the most fascinating science since Einstein came up with his famous relativity equation.
Hawking has remained such an intriguing figure in modern science probably as much for his personal story as for his particular scientific genius. There's something incredibly captivating, albeit poignant, about seeing such a stellar mind trapped in a body that is slowly (very slowly--decades, in fact, as this piece makes amply clear) shutting down due to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). One of the more compelling things about this documentary is the footage and stills of a young and active Hawking making the rounds of early scientific seminars before the disease consigned him to a life in a wheelchair. Having only become aware of Hawking (as a lot of people did, I suspect) with the publication of "A Brief History of Time" in the 1980s, it can be almost shocking to see these long ago images of a vigorous and physically whole Hawking.
The Theory of Everything gives some illuminating insight into Hawking's near lifelong quest to unite the physics of the enormous, i.e., relativity, with the very small, i.e., quantum mechanics. Featuring a wealth of fascinating, if at times too technical, interviews with both Hawking and many of his collaborators, the documentary does best when it provides simple illustrative examples of these extremely arcane pieces of information. Sometimes they can be simple drawings, as in an illustration of what happens to light around a black hole, which begins to look like one of those Spirograph illustrations that were so popular with kids back in the late 1960s. At others, we get actual physical illustrations, as when a physicist pulls out a billiard sized ball and tells us to imagine that it's the nucleus of an atom. He correctly points out that we usually see animations of atoms with the electrons spinning just a few inches away from the nucleus. He then goes on to show, in increasingly humorous exchanges, how relatively far a real electron would be from a nucleus the size of a billiard ball. He's in a library and steps away to some shelves and says, "Nope, further than that." Moves into the next room. "Further than that." Steps out into the hall. You guessed it. He ends up out in a courtyard some distance away from the billiard sized "nucleus." It suddenly brings home how much "empty space" there is even in the tiniest elements of our physical world.
Luckily (at least for this arithmetically challenged viewer) there's not much actual math bandied about in this two part piece which aired on both the Discovery and Science Channels, aside from various formulae which spread across various blackboards. Equally luckily we also get a real feeling for the actual human being Stephen Hawking, courtesy of several people, including his caretakers, who know him intimately. What surfaces is a portrait in grit and fortitude and surprising good humor. There's not a hint of self-pity in Hawking, and he actually can be laugh out loud funny at times, as in one of his live presentations, included here, where he projects a large image of himself behind jail bars and then "confesses" how he feared he would end up like Galileo when he started purveying his then radical ideas about space and time and a unifying theory.
The average viewer may well not understand everything that's being presented in this exemplary piece (unless, of course, they have their own 10 year old watching who can explain it all in amazing detail). That ultimately won't matter, as aside from the science, the human story is so deeply involving and meaningful. Hawking provides ample proof that the vagaries of the physical body cannot contain the enormity of the human intellect and, even more importantly, the human spirit.
Hawking offers a very nice looking enhanced 1.78:1 image that boasts excellent color and contrast and above average detail. There are some very fine segments showing the universe "in motion" at both the macro and micro level which are extremely sharp looking. As is to be expected, some of the archival footage looks faded and has considerable damage.
The standard stereo soundtrack is nothing to write home about, but it suffices for a production like this which is largely interview segments. English subtitles are available.
None are offered.
Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything is one of the most consistently involving documentaries I've seen recently. The science, while challenging, is presented in a form that allows the layperson to at least get the general ideas being discussed, if not the nuances. The personal story of Hawking and his challenges is simply incredible and should encourage anyone on a "pity party" to wise up and stop their belly aching. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet