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Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (MacSci) Hardcover – January 3, 2012
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“Ferguson shines at explaining Hawking's theories, the jovially competitive academic world in which they are hammered out and her subject's distinctive and evolving intellectual style…An irresistible story. His puckish humor and exuberance for life and for ideas are infectious even at a remove. And the ideas themselves could not ask for a better elucidator.” ―Laura Miller, Salon
“Intelligent and readable… Kitty Ferguson is astonishing in her own right…. She is a careful explicator not only of [Hawkings'] ideas but of the context in which they arose.” ―Sara Lippincott, The Los Angeles Times
“Ferguson provides engaging and helpful explanations of the physics behind [Hawking's] triumphs.” ―The Washington Post
“Ferguson replaces the iconic but static image of cosmologist Hawking with flesh and blood in this vivid portrait… Through interviews with Hawking and his colleagues, friends, and family, Ferguson builds a complete picture of Hawking's life, from his tireless work to explain our universe to his notorious driving, playful appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and other shows, campaigning to improve the lives of the disabled, and his family life, with special attention to his relationship with his first wife, Jane, whose sacrifices allowed him to focus on his work. In the end, Ferguson captures the very full life and work of one of the most vibrant minds of our time.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Ferguson brilliantly updates her 1991 children's biography of Stephen Hawking for an adult audience . . . Her ability to write clearly about scientific issues using metaphor rather than mathematics makes this an excellent introduction to astrophysics for the interested layman. A fascinating portrait of a complex figure who ponders the place of man and God in the universe and who still loves the 'Eureka moment of discovering something that no one knew before.'” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Kitty Ferguson gives a thorough account of Hawking the man, as well as of his extraordinary body of work in cosmology. [She has] a flair for the original which makes much of the tome highly readable. There are excellently clear descriptions of the large issues and precious few off-putting mathematics and equations...Ferguson pitches the balance between Hawking's personal life and an explanation of his work about right.” ―Greg Jamison, Entertainment Focus
“As both a global icon and an innovative theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking is well served by science writer Kitty Ferguson's fascinating biography. Ferguson explains in accessible terms the major themes that Hawking has explored in his career, and creates a portrait of the private man by drawing on her close personal contact with him and his family. ... Ferguson's sympathetic and informed take on an individual who has enriched human knowledge against the odds is an excellent summing-up, as Hawking approaches his 70th birthday, of his unique and creative contribution to both science and humanity.” ―George Ellis, Nature
“More than a biography … a brave attempt to chart the life of the celebrated physicist in parallel with his astounding and important work…. Ferguson has spent a lot of time with Hawking and as a scientist she attempts to explain in lay terms the fundamental concepts of Hawking's vast and amazing body of work.” ―Bertrams
About the Author
Kitty Ferguson has been writing and lecturing about science and scientists for over two decades, making the language and concepts of physics and cosmology understandable for audiences without a scientific background. Her 1991 biography of Stephen Hawking, written with his encouragement and help, was an international best-seller. She was a consultant for Hawking's book The Universe in a Nutshell. Kitty is the author of several books including The Fire in the Equations and The Music of Pythagoras. She has also been interviewed by Forbes Magazine, PBS, "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," and the BBC. She lectures widely in North America, and her appearances have included the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Hayden Planetarium in NYC, The Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and many universities. Kitty and her husband divide their time between Cambridge, England and South Carolina.
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The role of Jane Hawking in Stephen's life cannot be overestimated. She was there for him through the most critical moments of his disease and it is hard to imagine what would have happened without her. Ferguson details Jane's work and her conflict between her own goals and her role as Hawking's wife. Some other reviews have criticized the book for skirting the charges of abuse to Hawking which followed him during his second marriage. More may be coming out at some point but when the biography was written Hawking refused to discuss the issue. Without his input Ferguson cannot do much more than mention the issue without speculating. Ferguson worked with Hawking closely not only on this book but in her earlier 1991 biography of him. This biography highlights the positive - Hawking's mathematical genius, his genuine sense of humor, his popular books to explain his ideas, and his work for the disabled. But it also goes into some detail about his flaws - his stubbornness, his lack of appreciation at times of those who helped him so much, and what appears to be an excessive love of the limelight. Some of the flaws may be attributed to issues that others may have about him but clearly some were Hawking's own and could be deeply hurtful. The reader gets a well-rounded view of Hawking as a person and the growing effect of the debilitating ALS on his life.
As Ferguson notes, Hawking undercut his own assumptions several times in his work. His beautiful theories were always handicapped by a lack of empirical data, a problem that all theoretical physicists have today. For example, his theories about Hawking radiation, singularities, and wormholes (all of which Ferguson explains well) are utter masterpieces of mathematical reasoning but absolute verification may be impossible. I left the book wishing that the Nobel Committee would recognize theoretical physicists much more than they do. The argument most often made on their behalf is that a beautiful mathematical model may quite simply be wrong and that differing theories not only need unifying but need more proof. On the other hand, geniuses like Hawking have provided ways of mentally and mathematically seeing the options and, at a time when such models have become unbelievably difficult to build, have provided a path for potential research. One of the side effects of this book is that the reader comes to understand much better the interplay of theoretical and experimental physics. Hawking once said that he was fortunate to have gone into theoretical physics because his handicap did not hurt him nearly as much as in most other fields. It is to our lasting benefit that he did so. Flaws and all, Stephen Hawking has given us a stunning (if evolving) vision of the universe that is not only beautifully crafted but inspiring to those with even the smallest interest in astronomy. This book is a tribute to Hawking's life.
I picked up Kitty Ferguson's biography next: "Stephen Hawking - An Unfettered Mind." For all the challenges of the motor neuron disease that has paralyzed him for more than four decades, this physicist says: "...In my mind, I am free." What a remarkable thing to be able to say! Yes, he's a rock star in cosmology, and no, as a physicist reviewer said in a GoodReads review, he may not be next to Einstein in his accomplishments. But he has opened up the wonders of black holes, baby universes, and m-theory to many non-physicists. What he is doing is doing physics, following his curiosity, pushing his ideas, not afraid to change his mind and say so, and to share his teachings with millions of people who have bought his books in an airport book store and given them a try.
Kitty Ferguson has done a strong job in making his key ideas clear to the general reader. She sketches a balanced assessment of his work and his value as a popular teacher of cosmology. She examines large philosophical questions of the role of God beyond Hawking's science also in a balanced manner. A very helpful book.
Stephen Hawking has provided me with much to ponder over the past ten years and I am grateful for his efforts to make the workings of his mind accessible to the rest of us. Kitty Ferguson has done a marvelous job introducing Hawking to us to the best of her ability. I can only imagine the monumental task of tackling the complexities of telling the story of this man and his science. Well done.