DVD Review: Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything (2007)

Now Available on DVD
From Acorn Media

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A.K.A. Master of the Universe

Fittingly, as a writer “math” has always been my least favorite four letter word.

And, during my undergraduate study when I designed an entire course around my love of astronomy, physics, and cosmology in lieu of a straight mathematics course, I was delighted to discover that even a genius like Stephen Hawking had also struggled with mathematics during his undergraduate study.

Admittedly while I can’t even calculate tax without a mini-calculator or figure out a tip without a pocket card (and moreover feel it’s best to stay within my limitations)—obviously, Hawking’s situation was entirely different than my own. This is especially the case since unlike yours truly who even has an irrational aversion to Sesame Street’s The Count-- Stephen Hawking had always loved mathematics.

Yet while he admits that his father would have preferred him to pursue a degree in medicine, it was Hawking’s dream to explore the field of mathematics when he attended the University College at Oxford. Amazingly, mathematics was not available at the time at Oxford University College so he made the switch to physics which turned out to be the ideal subject for the man who has become an undisputed rock star in the field of physics.

It was a “happy accident” in his life that turned out to be one of several which began curiously when his mother—as referenced in the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time-- shared that she made the prophetic decision to purchase an astronomical atlas for her newborn son who amazingly was born on the precise date that marked the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo.

Stars—one could say-- were in Hawking’s destiny which would find him holding the same prestigious Lucasian Professor Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University that was once held by Sir Isaac Netwon in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics which has been his second “home” since 1979 (up through his announced intention to retire in 2009).

However, in the ‘60s and shortly after his recipient of a first class honors degree in the field of natural science, Hawking ventured to Cambridge to further his research in cosmology which was a budding area of study at the time. Since cosmology would enable him to pursue the same questions of why we are here and how the universe came to be, it seemed like an ideal fit.

But unfortunately it's one of life's cruelest jests for tragedies to strike a person in their youth as the next “accident” to strike the bright young mind was not a happy one but an unhappy one indeed as the self-described clumsy young man took two major spills and—alarming his father and after weeks of intense medical testing, he was eventually diagnosed with ALS or motor neuron disease shortly after his 21st birthday.

While now he admits that prior to the diagnosis he'd been getting bored with his academic pursuits, and being told that he may only have a few years left to live initially devastated him but Hawking was-- as this Acorn DVD describes-- “catapulted… out of depression,” by the groundbreaking work of Roger Penrose who gave Stephen Hawking a sense about the way that physics could be used to answer life's most basic philosophical questions of who we are, why we are here, and just how we arrived on this planet.

In his autobiography and statement regarding his disability available on the official Stephen Hawking website, he also credits his engagement to Jane Wilde for giving him “something to live for,” and although he notes that he was “at a loose end” as doctors told him to return to Cambridge to continue with his research in the fields of cosmology and general relativity, Hawking argued that he “was not making much progress, because… [he] didn’t have much mathematical background.”

However, following two horrifying and recurring dreams wherein he fluctuated between the idea that he was going to be executed and tried to bargain good deeds to earn a reprieve along with the other that found Hawking dreaming that “if I were going to die anyway,” he “might as well do some good” and moreover “sacrifice my life to save others," he decided to do something proactive.

Of course and thankfully, Hawking did not die but he has done a world of good in fighting to unify theories of the very large and very small or to put it more scientifically, to somehow use cosmology in the scientific holy grail pursuit for “the theory of everything” which would blend together Albert Einstein's theory of relativity with that of quantum mechanics.

It's a seemingly impossible task and one that has eluded cosmologists, physicists, and scientific intellectuals around the globe—in fact Einstein himself was actively pursuing the unified theory near the end of his life and when he passed on, the equations with which he had been working were discovered on his blackboard.

Yet, Hawking’s work in search of the theory of everything gained unprecedented momentum when he and Penrose along with several other colleagues began to think outside the box and previous limitations. This was exemplified in Hawking’s monumentally significant paper that discussed “a singularity of infinite gravity” which in other words notes that the creation of the universe was an extraordinarily tiny point.

Likewise, he also followed through on what he describes as a “Eureka Moment” in the 1970s upon questioning what would happen if he included quantum mechanics in his analysis of black holes. In the necessary attempt to “unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory,” Hawking made the discovery “that black holes should not be completely black, but rather should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear,” along with his brilliant papers and theorems surrounding the fact that “the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time,” which implies “that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science.” In doing so, he helped inspire new ways of thinking which broke down barriers in the scientific community, suddenly making it accessible with the astronomical success of the publication of A Brief History of Time.

The work has sold more than 10 million copies since its original publication in 1988 and with its translation into countless languages along with Hawking’s own newer takes on the work to make it far easier to understand to those with all scientific and mathematical skill levels with Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time, and collaborating with his daughter Lucy on a children’s book about science which discusses the Hawking radiation discovery in a work entitled George’s Secret Key to the Universe. It's these combined efforts that have suddenly inspired everyone to begin asking the deeper questions about existence in a way that’s truly brought science to the masses.

And in tandem, Hawking has become a beloved figure for countless decades-- not above appearing in The Simpsons or taking part in several pop culture phenomena in Hawking's ongoing quest to warn about the dangers of being irresponsible to our planet (The 11th Hour) along with exploring the extremely exciting territory of string theory.

The theory which-- despite its roots over the past few decades that resulted in several variations-- eventually culminated in the M theory or super string theory that we know today, with the breakthrough for this occurring right down the hall from Hawking at Cambridge from the efforts of his colleague Michael Green.

In this fascinating two part episode DVD-- originally titled Master of the Universe which was produced for UK's Channel 4 and similarly aired on America's Discovery Science Channel in 2008, it's since been renamed Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything (perhaps despite the realization that Hawking had “denounced the unathorised publication” of the book by the same name, informing readers that he was “not involved in its creation). And in the episodes we get an overview of Hawking's life and work.

Although those with more than a cursory knowledge of the topics discussed in addition to having read the works firsthand by Stephen Hawking may be a bit underwhelmed--it’s invaluable as a primer to those who are unfamiliar with the fascinating and maddeningly elusive “theory of everything.”

Likewise, including a candid overview of Hawking’s life and struggle with ALS—the DVD earns points by fixating less on the disease and more on the scientific achievements of the man (as opposed to some biographical specials that devote a condescending “oh, but look what he can do,” style of narration) to a man who’s extraordinary as an individual and not one “in spite of” a disability, thus making him an even greater role model for the disabled.

The high quality DVD tries its hardest not to lose you in complex scientific evaluation by instead breaking down the important subtopics including string theory, black holes, super symmetry, multiple dimensions, quantum mechanics, relativity, gravity, and membranes both via Hawking and other noteworthy academics and scientists including Michio Kaku (City University of New York), Lisa Randall (Harvard University), John Schwarz (California Institute of Technology), and others with the aid of easy graphics and examples to help add visual sugar to the hard-to-digest tech speak.

While it’s not nearly as in-depth as some of the other works available including my favorite PBS miniseries on the amazingly compelling study of string theory—Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe— hopefully it will inspire you to seek out additional information on the topics involved and more importantly, encourage you to watch with your own middle to high school age students to help get them more interested in cosmology as well.