My friend Stephen Hawking was reckless, capricious — and stubborn as hell: Published in “i”

Stephen Hawking was less saintly – and more fun – than his celebrity persona, his friend and colleague Leonard Mlodinow tells Etan Smallman


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Leonard Mlodinow laughs when I ask what the biggest misconception is that the public has of Stephen Hawking. “Oh my God, the whole thing is a misconception,” says the American theoretical physicist who co-authored two books, A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design, with the man dubbed “science’s brightest star”.

The celebrity version of Hawking involved pre-canned answers delivered quick as a flash. In real life, before you got to the transcendental physics, you had to contend with the mundane daily tasks that kept a quadriplegic man alive and vaguely comfortable – and a “walking through a field of molasses” communication process that was quick if it got up to six words a minute.

In turn, his ubiquity in popular culture rather warped our view of him as a scientist. It is ridiculous to suggest Hawking was in the same league as Newton or Einstein, Mlodinow says during our Zoom call from his home in California.

“That’s also a fairytale. He would laugh about it. There was a time in the 70s where he was just the number three physicist on his floor. And that’s fine because he was one of the greatest physicists of his generation, for sure.”

The maverick who put the overlooked science of cosmology on the map and transformed our understanding of black holes and relativity – despite a diagnosis of motor neurone disease at 21 and a prognosis that he had two years to live – was wickedly funny, sharp and generous. But he wasn’t a saint.

In his new book, half-memoir, half-biography, Mlodinow paints a picture of a character who could be reckless (he once tried to run down a student, Don Page, with his wheelchair “during an argument in which Don wasn’t conceding”), capricious, selfish and “stubborn as hell”. Hawking thought the last “was his best quality”, adds Mlodinow, who was not the only person driven to cigarettes while working with him. “But of course he had to be stubborn just to stay alive.”

The pair bonded in part over their shared love of sci-fi. Mlodinow worked as a scriptwriter on Star Trek: The Next Generation (perfect “imagination training” for physics, he says) and points out that, underneath it all, Hawking was a bog-standard “nerd”.

The science provides the backbone of the narrative but it is the touching human moments that linger in the mind. After experiencing his own brush with death, Mlodinow said to his friend: “It always goes back to physics and physics is life.” Hawking wrinkled his nose. “Love is life,” he said.

There was the time a “starstruck” Mlodinow tried to mop the sweat from Hawking’s brow only to set off an alarm when “his head, limp like that on a rag doll, tilted and rolled toward his shoulder, then landed on his chest… I’d been nabbed damaging Stephen Hawking.”

There was the Hawkinginstigated trip punting down the Cam while enjoying strawberries and champagne, when he gave a beaming smile as able-bodied Mlodinow was the one who almost tumbled into the water.

Mlodinow had first-hand experience of Hawking’s “stormy” marriage to his second wife, Elaine, his former nurse. She berated her husband for bringing his colleague for dinner without warning: “You never do, do you! Because you’re Stephen Hawking, and you don’t need to!” She turned to Mlodinow. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just that I’ve been his slave for 20 years, and it’s enough.”

The cast of helpers, and their constant jockeying for position to be Hawking’s favourite, furnished him with “his own private soap opera”, the scientist says.

“Some were serious matronly types,” he recalls. “Others flirted with him. They’d wear tight, low-cut tops, and when they leaned over to adjust something on his person, they made sure he got a dose of their bosom.”

Diana Finn, a carer who read the classics to Hawking, sometimes for hours at a time, provided him with his final love affair, Mlodinow reveals.

She touchingly said of her fiancé: “He had the most expressive face in the world.” (But they never married – “It seemed his children disapproved of their relationship”.) Hawking, who died in 2018, aged 76, revelled in his celebrity, with appearances in The Simpsons, a Pink Floyd song and a Specsavers ad. He also realised his fame was crucial to keeping him alive; it was his book sales that funded his round-the-clock care.

But, of course, Hawking was far more than a physicist. He became a global icon, not least thanks to his advocacy for disabled people.

Mlodinow says his favourite never-before-printed anecdote (mine too) is the story of when his carer Viv took him to a restaurant at a National Trust property that had no accessible facilities. So Hawking asked to be wheeled to the back of the kitchen before announcing: “I need the bottle.”

“What’s going on?” the chef asked. “Disabled toilet,” Hawking said, with his computerised voice turned up loud.

A mortified Viv quickly wheeled him to the hedges at the back of the kitchen where he did his thing. “Empty it now,” he said. “I can’t!” Viv replied. “The kitchen is right here.”

“Empty it,” Hawking said. As she complied, the chef came out and erupted. “In the midst of his tirade came words from Stephen,” Mlodinow writes. “‘Disabled toilets,’ he said, with the volume still on high. He flashed his angry grimace as the words came out. This was Stephen hitting the roof.”

Hawking and Viv visited again a year later. “They had added a disabled toilet.”

  • ‘Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics’, by Leonard Mlodinow (Allen Lane, £20) is out now


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