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‘A Brief History of Time’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 25, 1992


Errol Morris
Not rated

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Picture a huge chicken staring at you, the endless galaxy behind it. That's the opening image in "A Brief History of Time," and it illustrates perfectly the engrossing barrage of juxtapositions to come.

Although the title refers to Stephen W. Hawking's best-selling book about time, space and the great, unanswered questions, the real subject of director Errol Morris is the author himself.

Hawking, the theoretical physicist who feels a special affinity to Galileo (he was born exactly 300 years after Galileo's death) and who has made a career of figuring out the void since he developed Lou Gehrig's disease, is no less fathomless -- or fascinating -- a subject. Gnarled, witty and appealing in his wheelchair, he communicates entirely through a computer-activated voice machine.

To "speak," he must scroll through a computer dictionary, then activate his sentence with clicks of a hand-held device. The procedure takes several, silent minutes, punctuated only by the clicks. Finally, an eerie, artificial voice makes an utterance. Given the verbal articulation necessary to discuss the weighty matters he deals with, his task seems formidably daunting.

Morris, who made the unconventional, mesmeric film "The Thin Blue Line," proceeds in his refreshingly expressionistic way. He takes that chicken and runs with it, covering in his stride questions about black holes, singularities, the contraction of time and the mind of God. Talking with Hawking's friends, associates and family, as well as notable scientists (including Roger Penrose, Dennis Sciama and John Wheeler), he creates an inspired mosaic of impressions about this remarkable man and his mind.

While pursuing Hawking's personal story, Morris also stumbles into the questions the scientist has pursued for a quarter century. It is an exhilarating and frustrating experience. Just when you think Hawking is leading you to the mysteries of the Great Beyond, he hurls you back into the oblivion of ignorance. (Ultimately Hawking, like other great thinkers, knows only what he doesn't know.) Then, before you tumble too far into pessimism, resigned that you can never know anything about God or the universe, he offers an insightful foothold.

Morris offers similar insights about Hawking. There is the story -- offered by a Hawking sister -- about young Stephen's bold assertion that there were 11 ways to enter his family house. To this day, she says, she hasn't figured them all out. He also had a passion for a game, literally without end, called "Dynasty." Says his mother: "It was the complication of it that appealed to him."

His mother tells of Hawking's first inkling, in late adolescence, that he had the disease. It also marked the beginning of his thinking career. Previously rather blase about life, Hawking says, this disease charged the Oxford University student with purpose. He began to study quantum mechanics more thoroughly. He studied black holes. He developed theories. One, that time would reverse direction when the universe contracted, proved to be wrong.

But setbacks such as that did not, have not, stopped his work. To watch "Time" is not merely to marvel at the heavens we cannot yet know; it is also to admire Hawking, now 50, for approaching such daunting problems on a daily basis, despite every possible problem the cosmos can throw at him.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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