Stephen Hawking's search for ultimate meaning

Movie | New biopic <em>The Theory of Everything</em> tells the story of the famed scientist’s first marriage
by Sophia Lee
Posted 11/06/14, 09:20 am

Watching The Theory of Everything, a biographical movie about acclaimed scientist Stephen Hawking, reminded me of the first time I read Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time. I was a 14-year-old, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant hiding in my school library because I had nobody to sit with during recess. I was no prodigy, just a lonely nerd fascinated with the idea of time and space.

As I began reading Hawking’s witty prose about the creation and nature of the physical universe, I remember feeling glad that this obviously super-brilliant physicist, with his intricate equations and theories, would mention God within his scientific inquiry. But hope quickly dissolved into dismay as I realized that Hawking was actually trying to nudge God out of science. 

Here’s Hawking’s cosmological model: The world is disordered, unpredictable, and irrational with no precise moment when time began. Since there is no finite moment of time’s beginning, there is no creation and thus, no role for a creator. It soon became evident that Hawking has an extremely restrictive, warped concept of God. His “god” was not the infinite Trinity God of love, power, wisdom, goodness, humor, and wrath that I know, but some conceptual principle of equation and law. Essentially, Hawking had stuffed “god” into his imperfect, error-riddled box of human reason, until the expanding gas of pride puffed “god” out. Even as an ignorant eighth-grader, I felt frustrated and devastated for Hawking: How can such an intelligent man be so suffocated into foolishness by his own cleverness?

I felt that same grief while watching Theory of Everything. The biopic (rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material) illustrates the relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Based on Jane’s memoir,it’s a heart-wrenching, soul-stirring love story starting from their sweet Cambridge days and Hawking’s diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), to the realities of an abnormal marriage and their eventual divorce. Though the focus is on the couple’s uphill battle against Hawking’s gradual physical deterioration, which Redmayne performs with spectacular subtlety, the film constantly returns to the conflict between their religious beliefs: Jane is a Christian who sings in the church choir, while Stephen is an agnostic who progressively finds God “irrelevant” in physics.  

The day Hawking received his PhD, his dissertation examining committee praised him for his “superb” and “extraordinary” black hole theory. Thrilled, Hawking announced his desire to reach the ultimate goal of science. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” he said as he clutched on two canes, his speech already a semi-unintelligible slur. “One simple, elegant way to explain everything.” Then he defied medical prognosis—he had been given two years to live—by trying to discover that theory. That quest still continues. 

In the process, Hawking lost almost all his muscle functions, bore three healthy children, predicted the Hawking radiation that became his greatest achievement, wrote A Brief History of Time, turned into a celebrity, fell in love with his nurse Elaine, and continued on his path towards atheism. What a seemingly rich, full life of hardships, prestige, and triumphs he had—but so devoid of true humility and understanding. Darkened in heart and spirit, Hawking invested all his energy and brilliance groping for a convoluted alternative to the simple, elegant, and logical way to explain everything: God. 

I cried at many points throughout the movie, but most particularly at two scenes in which Jane—pre-marriage and post-marriage—tenderly removed Hawking’s smudged glasses and wiped the lens clean with the hem of her dress. “Your glasses are always dirty,” she said, and gently slid the spectacles back over the bridge of his nose. If only she had cleaned his spiritual glasses as well.

As I stood in line for the restroom to wash my tear-streaked face, I chatted with another journalist who said she liked the movie until the end: “You have this amazing love story, and then they just break up like that. That was so depressing.” I wasn’t as depressed that human love, however powerful and inspiring, would eventually crumble against such enormous adversities. The futility of human love only illuminates the desire for Jesus Christ’s grace-pointing love. What’s more tragic is that someone would be so alienated from that truth as to devote such incredible time and thought to study creation—yet deny and defy the Creator. 

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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