Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

Travelling to infinityWhile at the library recently I picked up Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking. I often borrow books from the library that I might not otherwise read and this is one of them.

Synopsis: This is the biography/memoir of Jane Hawking, wife for 25 years of Stephen Hawking the famed physicist. It traces not only their lives but that of their families as well as his remarkable scientific discoveries and the impact of his degenerative illness, motor neuron disease, on himself, his wife, family and colleagues.

 My thoughts:

I was intrigued by this story and astonished that a woman as young as Jane married and took on the responsibilities associated with a brilliant but increasingly ill man. The rigours of their lives and the physical and emotional hardships were perhaps made more difficult, rather than less, with a husband who was a scientific genius. Everyday people would have most of the same strains but presumably not the added pressure of a brain which far outstripped anyone else’s. Jane’s persistence and determination and her family’s support are remarkable. The sheer generosity of Stephen Hawking’s students and colleagues is also amazing.

Throughout the story, I was increasingly annoyed with Stephen Hawking’s selfish disregard of his wife’s needs and lack of recognition of her academic ability which is evident throughout the memoir. While not reaching Stephen’s standard of genius, it’s plain that Jane is no slouch intellectually. However she sacrifices a great deal for her husband’s well-being both physically and intellectually. He appears not to have reciprocated her generosity or regard.

While the details of the science, and sometimes her own linguistic endeavours, were often lost on me (or I didn’t bother to try to keep on top of them), the life story was intriguing.

While it could be argued that she has “puffed herself up” this is not how it strikes me, rather the opposite if anything. As the book neared its conclusion I was increasingly irritated with Stephen Hawking’s lack of respect and regard for his wife and her significant contributions to his achievements. His fame seems to reflect this grandiose view of himself, which is perhaps the real reason why he becomes besotted by his nurse. After all, in traditional terms nurses are accustomed to deferring to the supposed greater intellect of the medicos, a phenomenon which is perhaps less common today. And yes, Jane does have a relationship with a “family friend”, initially platonic and later physical, who continues to help the whole family, at great sacrifice to himself. Who could blame her struggling with the depths of despair.

Frankly I wondered why Jane Hawking continued to denigrate her own abilities and remain in the marriage. Stephen Hawking’s elitist perspectives were increasingly infuriating to me as he appeared to intimidate, if not bully, his wife and family. As the famed scientist his needs were held to be greater than those of the rest of the family. Personally I agreed with the local minister who assured Jane that irrespective of intelligence or genius, each member of a family has equal rights if not always equal needs.

Magic carpet factor: 3.75 

Aggravation factor (with him!) 4.75