Stephen Hawking, pictured in 1987 in Cambridge
Stephen Hawking, pictured in 1987 in Cambridge

My Brief History, by Stephen Hawking, Bantam Press, RRP£12.99/$22, 144 pages

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, RRP£20/Ecco, RRP$27.99, 328 pages

The simultaneous publication of memoirs by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast Britain’s most famous scientists. It is also a reminder that these two remarkable men have rather more in common than we think.

Most striking is the similarity in their backgrounds. They were born in the early 1940s to families in the professional middle class – not wealthy but comfortably off, with a strong commitment to intellectual endeavour and public service. Both had fathers working in the British colonies of east Africa, who were keen to send their sons to their old Oxford colleges – and both succeeded, Dawkins reading zoology at Balliol and Hawking physics at University College.

Neither author takes a very favourable retrospective view of his secondary education in the 1950s, though both went to good independent schools. At Oundle, Dawkins writes, the dominant motivation for doing anything was peer pressure and the ethos of his peers was anti-intellectual, with an antipathy to hard work. “There was too much adulation of the rugby team and too little prestige attached to intelligence or scholarship.”

More surprisingly, Hawking found similar attitudes when he went on to university. “The prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to either be brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was the mark of a ‘grey man’, the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary.”

Hawking calculated that he worked on average for about an hour a day as an undergraduate physicist: “We affected an air of complete boredom and the feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for.” He was on the borderline between a first- and second-class degree and, interviewed to determine his grade, he said he wanted to go on to do a PhD. If he got a first, he’d go to Cambridge; if a second, he’d stay in Oxford. The examiners gave him a first.

Undergraduate life was intellectually more rewarding for Dawkins. He did not take to lectures or practicals but relished the system at Oxford (and Cambridge) in which each student has a weekly essay-based session with an academic tutor: “It was really only the tutorial system that educated me.”

The memoirs also contain lively vignettes of non-academic student life half a century ago. Hawking focuses on coxing for the (rowing) Boat Club while Dawkins dips into drama, music and film. In those distant days of single-sex colleges and a male-dominated university, neither man had a girlfriend as an undergraduate. “The sexual revolution of the 1960s changed everything but that was after I attended Oxford,” Hawking writes. “I didn’t finally lose my virginity until much later, at the rather advanced age of 22, to a sweet cellist in London,” says Dawkins (who then gives a lyrical description of the event).

For both men scientific life, like sex, really got going as postgraduates after 1962. Dawkins, who remained at Oxford, describes brilliantly the intellectual hothouse maintained there by his doctoral supervisor, the great animal behaviourist Niko Tinbergen. His own research focused on the pecking behaviour of chicks, a project that involved not only his emerging biological intuition but also his life-long passion for computing. Using astonishingly primitive machines (by today’s standards), Dawkins devised a program to calculate the way chicks were pecking at different coloured keys.

The seed for Dawkins’ pioneering book The Selfish Gene, which transformed thinking about Darwinian evolution, was sown in 1966 when he prepared his first undergraduate lecture. He wanted the students to understand that natural selection does not operate at the level of species, groups or even individuals but through their individual genes.

Ted Birk (left) and Richard Dawkins study the response of female crickets to computer-simulated mating calls
Richard Dawkins (right) in an Oxford laboratory in 1976

The trigger for turning it into a book was the 1973 miners’ strike and accompanying three-day week, with power cuts that temporarily prevented Dawkins working in the lab. Instead he started writing The Selfish Gene on a manual typewriter – and saw it published to great acclaim in 1976, the point at which his memoir concludes. Those wishing to follow Dawkins’ journey as he assumes the unofficial position of Britain’s atheist-in-chief will have to wait for the second volume.

In Cambridge, Hawking was embarking on the research into cosmology and gravity that was to make his name as one of the great theoretical physicists of the late 20th century. He outlines clearly his groundbreaking realisation that black holes are not necessarily a one-way street to annihilation; quantum theory means that black holes can radiate out energy, matter and information as well as sucking them in. The implications for the nature of the universe are profound.

Hawking writes movingly about the motor neuron disease that has made him such a distinctive figure, crippling him progressively over 50 years without dimming his mind. He noticed increasing clumsiness before leaving Oxford, though the doctor’s response after he fell downstairs was “Lay off the beer”. When the disease was diagnosed a few months later, with a prediction of death within a few years, Hawking’s initial shock and self-pity led to vivid, disturbed dreaming – and listening a lot to Wagner. He denies reports that he drank heavily to console himself.

But then he found himself enjoying life again following his engagement to Jane Wilde, who became his first wife. (Another thing that Hawking and Dawkins have in common is two divorces.) Work looked up too, as he realised that disease would not impede his original thinking about space-time and the origins of the universe.

It would have seemed inconceivable then that Hawking would still be alive in his seventies – communicating through an infrared switch on his spectacles and associated computer software, which translates his cheek movements into text at a maximum speed of three words per minute.

With Hawking writing at that rate, it is not surprising that My Brief History is so much shorter than An Appetite for Wonder. His style is simple yet still very readable. We hear Hawking’s voice radiating directly from the black hole of his motor neuron disease, without the amplification and elaboration supplied by the co-authors with whom he wrote his last few books. But there is no surprise here about Dawkins’ style: clear and elegant as usual.

Each book is recommended individually as a personal introduction to an important thinker and populariser of science. As a fortuitous pair they provide a superb background to the academic and social climate of postwar British research.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article