Unable to write an equation much after the age of 30, he conceived and developed his ideas in geometrical terms instead, which enabled him to come at things from a different direction. No, I don't understand that either, but you can only respect his sheer drive and determination. Mlodinow hasn't written a warts-and-all portrait. Indeed, his book is so awash with admiration it sometimes approaches hagiography. But I'm not sure that's a problem. What really comes over is his modest delight that he made a friend of such an eminent man, and his explanations of the science are startlingly good. You will learn from this what you signally failed to learn from A Brief History Of Time. Looks nice on the shelf, too.
Mlodinow also communicates a sense of the thrill of scientific discovery, an insightful history of physics and a well-balanced assessment of Hawking’s scientific achievements. Casual readers may not come any closer to understanding the mind of the universe, but they will get to know the exceptional mind of a scientist who perhaps did.
What is refreshing is the absence of the usual adulation of an exceptional mind and celebration of triumph over adversity. In their place is a tender account, full of genuine affection, which doesn’t shy away from Hawking’s intense focus, self-centredness, unpredictability and the difficulties faced by his wives and carers. The author, Leonard Mlodinow, is in an almost unique position. A fellow physicist and science writer, he worked closely with Hawking over many years during which they co-wrote two bestselling books: A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design, the collaboration on and writing of which forms the backdrop for this memoir.
Rather as a black hole contains enormous amounts of matter compressed into a tiny space, this brief book somehow also functions as both a personal and intellectual biography of its subject, without wasting time on trivia or prurience. (Hawking’s complicated love life is mentioned non-judgmentally.) “To apply quantum theory to the entire universe raises many questions,” Mlodinow writes at one point, with amusing understatement; but his explanations of fundamental ideas in modern cosmology — the curvature of spacetime, the expansion of the universe, and so forth — are marvels of compact clarity.
Mlodinow is a good writer. You are unlikely to find a better primer to Hawking, or to his physics. Even so, much of it is, to use a journalistic term, a “cuts job” — stories drawn from other sources. At the end we are left with as good a picture as we are likely to get of a man who was surely the most improbable global celebrity of the early 21st century. Yet I’m not sure how much closer we really are to knowing what was going on behind that twitching cheek and lopsided smile.