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Movie Review: A Physics Teacher's Take on 'The Theory of Everything'

As the 87th Academy Awards approach, we asked NMSI’s science coordinator, Randy Baskin, to share his thoughts on Best Picture nominee, “The Theory of Everything,” a biopic about theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
As a physics teacher, I was curious about the film “The Theory of Everything,” wondering how Hollywood would summarize both the extraordinary physics and the compelling life story of Stephen Hawking and family. Hawking, who lent his computerized voice to the movie has called it, “broadly true.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but surely a movie that shows the transformation of Hawking from a carefree prodigy to the world’s favorite physicist is a must-see? Sadly, the science is given short shrift, but the film is a winner in its focus on Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane and their struggle as his health deteriorates from a debilitating neurological disease and their marriage crumbles.
The film opens in picturesque Cambridge in 1963, with a Hawking wonderfully able to balance the pursuits of chess master, pinball wizard, crew coxswain, distracted science geek, and studious wooer of Jane. His brilliance is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. He procrastinates for a week on a difficult electricity and magnetism problem set and on the morning of the due date, unable to find a piece of paper, solves most of the problems on the back of a railroad timetable chart. Stephen’s major professor takes him to an old school lab and reveals to him, “This is where Rutherford split the atom.” Immediately, we see a slight shake of Stephen’s hand, and then a small stumble of his foot. It is subtle, not malicious.
Eddie Redmayne, who recently won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of Hawking, and co-star Felicity Jones have excellent chemistry as a young Stephen and Jane. He is bumbling and sly, while she is winsome and witty. He’s studying cosmology and theoretical physics, while she’s studying medieval Spanish poetry. He’s an atheist seeking “one single unifying equation” that will sort out everything, while she’s a devout member of the Church of England, seeking illumination and meaning through faith.
Adversity, however, soon strikes. At age 21, Stephen is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and given two years to live. Stephen tries to withdraw from the world, but Jane will not allow him to wallow in self-pity and insists she will take whatever time they have left together. They quickly marry, and eventually have three children. The family struggles financially, but Stephen remains a smiling pessimist while Jane leans on her faith and the church choir. One of the rich scenes in the movie involves the continuing deterioration of Stephen’s locomotive skills and his first electric wheelchair. Initially he feels a sense of resignation but soon he is driving around the house dressed like a Dalek from “Doctor Who,” yelling, “Exterminate!” It is this attitude and perspective that make the film so compelling.
As Hawking’s work becomes more acclaimed, his physical decline increases along with Jane’s growing discontent and the dissolution of their marriage. Unfortunately, the film glosses over the divorce and extra-marital relationships of both Stephen and Jane. Hawking’s momentous scientific discoveries remain largely unexplored and when mentioned are met with an admiring roll of the eyes from his peers, professors, and Jane or thunderous applause from audiences of his peers while celestial music plays in the background. If you are looking for a quality discussion of Hawking’s work, then I recommend Errol Morris’s documentary, “A Brief History of Time.”
Hawking recently expanded on his original two-word review of the film in an update on his Facebook page, “Seeing the film has given me the opportunity to reflect on my life. Although I’m severely disabled, I have been successful in my scientific work. I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero-gravity flight. One day I hope to go into space. I’ve been privileged to gain some understanding of the way the universe operates through my work. But it would be an empty universe indeed without the people that I love.”
I strongly recommend the film. It’s a powerful, human drama. Eddie Redmayne is astounding in his portrayal of Stephen Hawking and his performance will stir your science soul. The film will not add to your understanding of how general relativity and quantum mechanics fit together, but it will speak to the vicissitudes of life and reaffirm that adversity is part of the unifying equation for the human condition. Two opposable thumbs up!