The memoirs of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking: Evolution in the head

Two of the most visible of today’s scientists are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Their autobiographies present an opportunity to find out how they became so visible in the first place.

An Appetite for Wonder – the Making of a Scientist: a Memoir
Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press, 320pp, £20

My Brief History: a Memoir
Stephen Hawking
Bantam Press, 144pp, £12.99

In 1977, visiting the University of Connecticut, I came across Rae Goodell’s book The Visible Scientists. It asked why a very small number of scientists, more often than not, dominated the media. In those days, they were people such as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan and it was unusual for any scientist to have a strong media presence. Now, a media profile is common enough not to raise many eyebrows but the same question applies. And the answer is much the same: the media prefer people with a proven track record, so they generate “gurus”.

Two of the most visible of today’s scientists are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Both have now published autobiographies, presenting an opportunity to find out how they became so visible in the first place.

Clinton Richard Dawkins had a privileged upbringing in a family with a strong tradition in the colonial service. Born in Kenya, he attended a series of public schools: a boarding school in Southern Rhodesia (“now the sick dictatorship of Zimbabwe”); St Anne’s School in Chelmsford, where he was bullied by some big girls; then another boarding school, Chafyn Grove in Salisbury. It was perhaps here that the seeds of his atheism were sown: the then headmaster, Mr Galloway, “truly believed all that stuff, unlike many educators who pretend to do so out of duty, and politicians who pretend to do so because they are under the . . . impression that it wins votes”.

Dawkins credits his mother with telling him, when he was nine, that Christianity wasn’t the only religion and that they all contradicted each other. I’ve often felt that American creationists are backing the wrong horse when they try to get religion into state schools – in my experience, the best way to turn children off religion is to teach it to them in school. Be that as it may, when the 17-year-old Dawkins was in his final year at Oundle, another public school, he became militantly anti-religious, having arrived there as a confirmed Anglican.

From Oundle, he went to Oxford, eventually completing a DPhil under Niko Tinbergen, who specialised in animal behaviour. We gain some deep insights into Dawkins’s early scientific research, especially the extensive role of mathematics. The book ends just when everything is starting to get interesting, with the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976.

The book’s central message was that genes, not organisms, are what drive evolution. From today’s perspective, this view looks a little simplistic: genes and organisms together create a feedback cycle, in which genes survive because they either contribute to the organism’s survival or, at least, do not weaken its prospects. The important point is that it is complicity between genes and organisms, in the context of the environment that best describes the evolutionary process.

Stephen Hawking’s background was less privileged than that of Dawkins but there are parallels. His great-grandfather and his grandfather went bankrupt in the agricultural depression of the 1930s. His grandmother ran a school in her house, which became the family’s main source of income – enough to send Stephen’s father to Oxford. He did research there in tropical medicine and travelled to eastern Africa in 1937.

Hawking was born in Oxford on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo. He complained to his parents that his first school “wasn’t teaching me anything”; as proof, he didn’t learn to read until he was eight. When his parents rented a house in Majorca, Hawking had a tutor. Intending to open his tutee’s mind to the beauty of the English language, he told him to read a chapter of the Bible every day and write a commentary. This ploy backfired when Hawking complained that many sentences started with “and”, contrary to what he was being taught about good English. The tutor replied that the language of the Bible was outdated. In that case, Hawking asked, why was he being made to read it?

At school in St Albans, he decided to focus on physics and astronomy, despite finding physics boring because it was too easy. His undergraduate years were spent at Oxford and his postgraduate years at Cambridge, working on cosmology and gravitation. He managed to upset Fred Hoyle by pointing out in public that Hoyle’s favoured steady state theory of the universe implied that all masses should be infinite. However, Hoyle later gave him a job.

During his final year at Oxford, the symptoms of his disease began to appear: he fell down the stairs. His doctor put it down to too much beer but it soon became apparent that Hawking had an incurable and probably fatal illness. Perhaps out of a misguided wish not to upset him, nobody told him that it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neurone disease, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). There was one bright spot in his life: he became engaged to Jane Wilde and “started working for the first time in my life”. They married in 1965.

By the early 1970s, his research on black holes had solved many of the big problems in the area and he was “at a bit of a loose end”. Trying to combine relativity and quantum theory, he discovered that a black hole should emit radiation, now called Hawking radiation. In 1975, he was awarded the Pius XI Medal. He considered refusing it because of the Vatican’s treatment of Galileo but relented because the Church had subsequently admitted this had been a mistake.

His condition was getting steadily worse and Jane became depressed, convinced that he would soon die. A bout of pneumonia led to a tracheotomy, after which he could not speak at all. He was rescued by Walt Woltosz, who sent him a computer program that allowed him to select words on a screen by pressing a switch, and by David Mason, who provided a speech synthesiser. Around this time, the marriage broke up and Hawking moved out, along with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he later married.

In 1982, Hawking had the idea of writing a popular science book about the universe. This eventually appeared as A Brief History of Time (1988), which sold more than ten million copies. Reviewers assumed that the main factor behind the book’s popularity was its author’s human-interest story and thought that often the book was displayed on coffee tables rather than being read (it is distinctly challenging). However, Hawking points out that he regularly received “a pile of letters about that book”.

Notoriously, it ends with this sentence: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.” Prominent scientists often invoke the Deity as a metaphor for the ordered workings of the universe and are taken literally by theists; this was such a case.

In reality, Hawking is an atheist and has often pointed out that we can understand the universe without requiring a creator. He tells us that he nearly deleted this sentence but: “Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.”

Both these books are fascinating but they left me wanting more – Hawking’s because his history is a bit too brief; Dawkins’s because he takes his story only up to The Selfish Gene. Hawking tells us at one point that he can write about three words a minute, so the wonder is that he has produced an autobiography at all. A further volume from Dawkins is promised. I suspect it will tell us a lot more about what drives him.

Ian Stewart’s books include “Seventeen Equations That Changed the World” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Richard Dawkins speaks during the National Atheist Organization's 'Reason Rally'. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Unmasked: the subtle bitchiness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 500-page memoir

To my horror, I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

Poring over pictures of Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been a pet perve of mine, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the fevered manner in which I pawed through this tome on its arrival, desperate to find some photographical representation of him – the more the better. But it was dismay rather than lust that drove my actions; weighing in at a whopping 500 pages, the book is the size of the Bible. So imagine my astonishment on reading the prologue to discover that this is by no means the end of it – this volume of memoirs ends on the opening night of The Phantom of the Opera. Never have the phrases “merciful release” and “fear of the future” come together in one instant.

The size apart, I’ll admit I started this book with beef against ALW; I love musicals, but only those big overblown beauties which came from Broadway via Hollywood in the middle decades of the 20th century. When a musical gets out its library steps, it loses its soul; when it dresses people up as cats, it becomes musical theatre. And from there it’s a short step, spiritually, to doilies and antimacassars, because while musicals high-kick, musical theatre sticks out its pinky.

But before I had finished the first page, I was already warming to his bright and breezy, slightly spivvy writing style, which contrasted pleasingly with both the size of the book and my preconceptions about him: “Quite how I have managed to be so verbose about the most boring person I have ever written about eludes me.” Imagine my amazement when the pre-teen Lloyd Webber becomes spellbound by those very musicals that I declared the antithesis of his work: South Pacific, Carousel, West Side Story. I ploughed on, hoping that this was a momentary accord, but to my horror I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

ALW came from an enviably colourful family: a grandmother who was the founder of the somewhat niche Christian Communist Party; a great-aunt who was a member of the Bloomsbury Set and ran a transport cafe; an ancestor who wrote “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck…”); a working-class father who won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and had such a fear of authority that after accidentally calling the fire brigade he hid in a cupboard; a mother who became variously obsessed with a Gibraltan tenor, a vicious monkey named Mimi and a boy genius who she insisted on bringing into the household and glorifying to the distress of her husband; and, most of all, his adored Auntie Vi. The latter was, apparently, the author of the first-ever gay cookbook, one chapter of which – titled “Coq & Game Meat” – was headlined “Too Many Cocks Spoil the Breath”.

Then into this glorious Cold Comfort Farm-like ménage, Tim Rice turns up with his shockingly poor lyrics – “And when Joseph tried it on/He knew his sheepskin days were gone/His astounding clothing took the biscuit/Quite the smoothest person in the district” – and we’re back with a whimper in the horrendous middlebrow hinterland of musical theatre. Happily, the introduction of Rice brings out Lloyd Webber’s subtly bitchy side, which has so far lain dormant. “Like so many of Tim’s songs, it told a pessimistic story,” he remarks of an early lyric. Later he can barely conceal his glee when Rice becomes understandably cross because Melvyn Bragg gets a screenplay credit for the film of Jesus Christ Superstar due to the insertion of the words “Cool it, man.” Their song “Christmas Dream” gets limited American radio play due to Rice’s couplet, “Watch me now, here I go/All I need’s a little snow.” Indeed, the reprinting of Rice’s lyrics throughout the book could be seen less as a tribute to a long-time collaborator than as the ultimate clever throwing of shade, achieved solely by turning the other party’s conceit on themselves.

You can’t spend five decades in show business without seeing the seedy side of people, thankfully, and the drop-dead walk-ons are a highlight of our hero’s sashay through the bazaars of Thespus. Impresario Robert Stigwood “was holding court as if the fabric of Manhattan society would rend asunder without him”; the singer Dana Gillespie “was rumoured to have organized a cock measuring contest in her dressing room. I didn’t enter… bad form to enter a contest you know you’re going to win”; Prince Edward was “stage-struck and hadn’t a clue what to do about it”; a good divorce lawyer “should be firm but sympathetic. Mine turned out to be a right pig”.

He writes without special pleading or shame about his adultery; “Whatever else money can’t buy, it can buy you freedom and with freedom comes the chance to play.” His account of his meeting with Sarah Brightman – both of them married to other people and already putting it about elsewhere when they first connect – is pleasing in its simplicity and lack of bogus romanticism: “I was in love and I proposed to Sarah – well, in truth it wasn’t so much a proposal as a ‘we’re in love, we’re both married, what the fuck do we do about it?’’’

It does – of course, at 500 pages – go on a bit. He trowels on the heterosexuality to an extent he probably wouldn’t had he not chosen the theatre as a profession – and perhaps because he looked so much like gay-bait when young – to the extent that ALW even comes across as a dirty old man when writing of himself as a 21-year-old, with a fair bit of drooling over “schoolgirls”. It’s hard to warm to anyone who buys their first flat on the back of a trust fund from “Granny”. And his obsession with big houses, which he portrays as a fascination with architecture, seemed to my cynical eye to have more to do with simply wanting to own a succession of ever bigger houses.

But the image of the lonely little boy creating a toy theatre based on the London Palladium becoming the man who wakes up every morning marvelling that he owns the actual London Palladium is the stuff of beautiful theatre – far more magical than anything he has actually staged. I found myself pleasantly surprised by this book, but having said that, I’ll be swerving the next one. Life’s too short to take a liking to people whose work you loathe, let alone to do it over the course of a three-volume memoir. 

Unmasked: a Memoir
Andrew Lloyd Webber
HarperCollins, 517pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game