Friday, January 09, 2015

The Theory of Everything


Stephen Hawking famously concluded his bestselling A Brief History of Time with these words, "If we do discover a theory of everything...it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God." When in the film Hawking's wife Jane sees those words for the first time she is exited by the prospect that her atheistic husband had suddenly come to believe in God. It turned out that he hadn't and his 'mind of God' language was meant figuratively rather than theologically. Jane's faith in God and Stephen's lack of it is one of the key themes in this portrait of an unlikely couple.  

Hawking has devoted his scientific career to discovering a simple theory that can account for both Einstein's theory of relativity that describes the universe writ large and well ordered in light, energy and gravity, and quantum mechanics that describes the universe writ small and random at the level of sub-atomic particles. Scientists believe that both descriptions of reality are true, and yet they seem irreconcilable. That's where the so-called theory of everything comes in. In the film Jane with great simplicity explains this complex scientific idea to a friend  using a potato and a pea from her dinner plate as visual aids. 

Despite the sciencey bits, the film is less a cinematic exploration of Hawking's attempt to develop a theory of everything and more a meditation the power and fragility of human love. Stephen and Jane meet at Cambridge where he is studying cosmology and she Romance languages. Hawking as we first encounter him in the film was an ungainly, but intellectually brilliant young man. However, as is well known his clumsiness was but an early symptom of his debilitating motor neuron disease. Stephen and Jane have already stared seeing each other when his illness is diagnosed. The prognosis is around two years, but Jane is determined to continue with their relationship. When it is objected that in marrying Stephen she doesn't know what she is letting herself in for, Jane objects, 'But I love him' and that's that. But the power of love will be sorely tested both by Hawking's illness and by Jane and Stephen's conflicting beliefs. 

Early in their relationship Hawking explains that as a cosmologists he cannot believe in God, as faith would make the scientific quest for the origins of the universe redundant. Jane quickly retorts, 'That seems like a good argument for not believing in cosmologists'. One incident highlights their different faith perspectives. Stephen takes Jane to the University May ball. In a quiet moment together they both stand staring up at the night sky. The sight prompts Jane to quote from the Book of Genesis, but Stephen cannot hear the heavens declaring the glory of God. 

Both the main parts are extremely well acted. Eddie Redmayne contorts himself into Hawking's twisted, wheelchair encased frame. Felicity Jones plays Jane with convincing subtlety as a prim beauty with strong beliefs and determined love who is none the less overwhelmed by the task of caring for her increasingly disabled husband. Things are further complicated as Jane develops feeling for family friend and informal carer for Stephen, Jonathan Jones. Hawking's nurse, Elaine Mason played in the film by Maxine Peake also helped to drive a wedge between the couple. 

Hawking grew increasingly famous for his scientific theories popularised in A Brief History of Time. Wheelchair-bound and with his synthesised voice he became a globally recognised iconic figure. In a scene from the film the scientist is invited to address a conference in America. A member of the audience asks him, “You state that you do not believe in God, do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?” He replies,  
It is clear that we are just an advanced breed of primates on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among around a hundred billion galaxies. But, ever since the dawn of civilization people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world... However bad things may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life there is hope.
I don't know whether the script was  based on an actual Hawking quote. If they are the sentiments are considerably more positive than his thoughts on another occasion,
The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. 
Hawking is right to say that the whole universe cannot conceivably exist simply for our benefit. Christians believe that God created the world first and foremost to display his glory. But human beings are more than 'chemical scum'. We were created in the image of God that we might glorify him and delight in his creation in all its wonder, beauty  and complexity. Against the backdrop of an immense expanding universe human life may seem insignificant. But we are loved by God. The mind of God is known above all else in that the Word through whom all things were created was made flesh to bring sin-broken human beings back to himself.

The Theory of Everything presents a moving if romanticised portrait of a relationship that was tested to breaking point by terrible suffering. The contrasting faith outlooks of Stephen and Jane were an added complication and highlight the tensions that can be caused when a husband and wife don't share the same essential beliefs. The reality by all accounts was much more raw and painful, with one writer labeling Hawking a misogynist for the way in which he treated his devoted wife and carer, Jane. Another writes of his intense loathing of religion, which can't have helped matters.  (See here and here).

'But I love him' protested Jane. What a powerful, yet fragile thing is human love.    

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