This article is the third in an ongoing series, Science at the Cinema, which explores research and researchers portrayed in film.
A heart-wrenching tale of Stephen Hawking’s love life and passion for physics, “The Theory of Everything” is a big bang for talented acting but not for scientific depth. The film, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, catalogues Hawking’s growth from a scatterbrained student at the University of Cambridge to a world-renowned theoretical physicist, all while struggling to keep his physical health afloat.
Hawking and Jane Wilde — played by Eddie Redmayne, who won the Academy Award for his performance, and Felicity Jones, who received a nomination for Best Actress — meet at Cambridge, and the two quickly fall into a cerebral kind of love. Their relationship becomes increasingly strained once Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but the two solidify their commitment with marriage and soon after, a son.
Over the course of the film, Wilde and Hawking’s relationship follows the trajectory of a wave function that oscillates up and down as they fall in and out of love. The couple eventually splits after each pursues other romantic interests. These relationships were documented in Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind The Theory of Everything,” from which the film was adapted.
While the film deftly brings Hawking’s personal life to light, it mentions his achievements in theoretical physics only in passing.
One of Hawking’s most renowned accomplishments was his graduate thesis project, which provided theoretical evidence of the Big Bang, said Ian Dell’Antonio, professor of physics. Hawking postulated that at the beginning of the universe, there was a singularity — or region of infinite density — that then rapidly expanded. His proposal was highly controversial at the time of its publication, Dell’Antonio said. “The Theory of Everything” portrays Hawking’s thesis work only in brief scenes of vigorous chalkboard scribbling, which may be less than satisfactory for a physics enthusiast viewing the film.
But perhaps Hawking’s most famous discovery is one that “The Theory of Everything” hardly touches at all: Hawking radiation. According to the laws of quantum mechanics, black holes do not let anything escape, but Hawking discovered that they do emit some radiation — the magnitude of which is inversely proportional to their size, Dell’Antonio said.
More recently, Hawking has played a more public role in the physics community, writing best-selling books and giving lectures that are more accessible to the general public. His “many worlds” theory has attracted due criticism from physicists but has garnered more interest from armchair scientists. This theory posits that new universes are continually being created as quantum waves collapse, Dell’Antonio said, adding that the theory implies there are an infinite number of universes, and we happen to live in just one of them.
“If you ask the community of physicists, most would say they want to think about something else,” he said.
While “The Theory of Everything” paints an inspiring portrait of a man overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, it does not do full justice to Hawking’s legendary contributions to theoretical physics — at least in this universe.