Catch a new documentary on PBS Wednesday evening about Stephen Hawking, featuring the man behind the science.If you don’t have anything else on your calendar for Wednesday night, check out the new one-hour documentary about British physicist Stephen Hawking, which will be airing on many PBS stations. (This review is based on a preview of the "extended theatrical version," which is 90 minutes long.) Coauthored by Hawking himself, the film follows the celebrated British physicist from his childhood to his partying days as an Oxford undergraduate student, to his groundbreaking work on cosmology and black holes, and through his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Despite the debilitating effects of this disease (known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and the esoteric nature of his science, Hawking achieved global celebrity status with the smash success of his bestselling book A Brief History of Time. We learn about Hawking’s close brushes with death, and most interesting, the filmmakers give us an inside look at Hawking’s first marriage, including interview clips with his first wife Jane. We see nurses give him 24-hour support. We even see Hawking working with software engineers in Silicon Valley as they try to update computer systems to enable him to communicate through subtle facial movements.
What I like about this show, titled Hawking is that it accurately portrays Hawking as living an active lifestyle, a remarkable accomplishment given his debilitating disease. We see him partying with friends, reveling in the weightlessness of space during an airplane flight, and appearing on TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Jim Carrey.This portrayal is in stark contrast with the 1991 documentary film A Brief History of Time directed by Errol Morris. Although that production goes far more deeply into Hawking’s scientific contributions, it also depicted him somewhat erroneously as a static figure who has always been bound to a wheelchair.
The new film focuses on the man behind the science, capturing Hawking’s personality, sense of humor, and embrace of popular culture and celebrity. Near the end, we even see Hawking as the central figure at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Altogether, Hawking gives us an inspiring portrait of a great scientist who refuses to give in even when confronted with the most challenging obstacles one can possibly imagine.