Traveling to Infinity – a review

My review of “Traveling to Infinity” by Jane HawkinsThis is a unique book to read in one sense. In some ways, it reminds me of Gerard Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy and Alf Wight’s “All Creatures Great and Small” , both British authors’ creative accounts of their lives. However, this book has a bit more to offer.  There is much comedy, laughter, and light-hearted prose in the book, but there is also deep romance, love, struggles, insights and finally what I consider to be practical philosophy.  

From Jane’s descriptive writing, you will learn new terms such as “Physics Widows”, as coined by Einstein’s first wife, can be the experience of the relationship with a physicist who also happens to be a celebrity.  As she explains, the “Goddess Physics” will demand more things be laid at the  “Altar of Science” as the physicist is forced to employ every faculty to unravel the universe’s mysteries.  Jane also introduces the “Celestial Mechanics” (coined by Jane’s neighbor Thelma Thatcher) which carries physicists away into another realm even when they are walking on that same cemented sidewalks like us. Jane describes the physics equations as “Dancing Hieroglyphic” signs, using their great acrobatic skills to codify postulates and theorems about the universe.  The enigmatic theories continue to this day like an aporia in philosophy with not necessarily conclusive findings.  This should be no surprise as what is being attempted was a comprehensive way to explain the universe, its beginnings, its inner workings and its majestic outer displays – in fact a “Theory of Everything” – which Stephen later reported as being “incorrect.” 

You will also encounter the serious love between these two young Brits, that will be tested to its core with plenty of struggles, sufferings and disappointments. Jane also pens her own journey to complete her PhD thesis which will take you into the southern Iberian peninsula pondering Mozarabic Kharjas, exploring the tragicomedy La Celestina and trodding the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.  These will be her own achievements in the arena of non-science higher education, albeit less glorious in today’s drive of scientific explanations. Jane also captures the “Cambridge’s intellectual prejudice” and its stinging effects on her.  These will also have an impact on their three children, sometimes expected to outperform their peers like their father, and sometimes just being overshadowed by their father’s success.

Jane will also take you along to her travels around the world helping her brilliant husband while she has her own journey pondering politics of the Tory government, racial justice in the UK and abroad, the rights of the handicapped and the unrealistic demands of a celebrity lifestyle, the latter two hitting closer to home.  Jane will also meet her own redeeming people who bring all the Four Loves of C.S. Lewis spurring it back into her life – Bill Loveless (an oxymoronically named pastor), Jonathan (her future husband), Thelma Thatcher (a loving neighbor) and her own children (three precious friends).  They will all breathe strength into her for the arduous journey.  The little St. Mark’s Church in the middle of Cambridge becomes her recovery center giving her much needed spiritual strength to combat all her challenges and struggles.

Now back to the contrasting themes in this book; there are plenty of incidents where you see the inner life of a celebrity physicist, as he jokes about the universe making bets, like the famous Thorne-Hawking-Preskill bet on the blackholes information paradox and the infamous dollar bet with Don Page on information loss from blackholes.  Stephen ends up paying Don a dollar bill that  did not have a picture of George Washington but rather of Marilyn Monroe, whom Stephen admired for being “a model of the universe!”  You will also get an insight into a very human Stephen with his pride, assertion, demanding personality while having a Stoic posture that continually denied his own struggles and impediment due to ALS.  The culmination of this paradox will be his Honoris Causa inauguration meeting with Queen Elizabeth. You see an almost deified Stephen could easily be jolted off his throne with simple inconveniences that can make his limelight less glorious.  

The book is so real as it combines these comedies, philosophy, brilliance, romance, suffering and trials to portray a splendid yet real story.  It will remain in my bookshelf, probably helping me ponder how to juggle family, ambition, research, spiritual life, social life with our tiny human frame clearly marked with its limitations most of all our own finite time on this earth.