The Hand and Eye Behind “The Theory of Everything”

By Corey S. Powell | November 4, 2014 2:10 pm

Stephen and Jane Hawking on their wedding day, in film (left) and real life (middle and right). [Credit: Jane Hawking; Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

Stephen and Jane Hawking on their wedding day, in film (left) and real life (middle and right). [Credit: Jane Hawking; Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

The Theory of Everything–the long-awaited biopic about physicist Stephen Hawking, opening this Friday–is admirable for the things that it does not do. There are no scenes in which glowing equations hover around Hawking’s head. There are no swirling camera angles intended to convey a genius’s convulsive thought process. There are no floating grids attempting to depict space and time, and not a single CGI black hole to be seen. Simply by negating those cliches, the movie is a revelation.

But praising The Theory of Everything for its omissions does it a disservice. The film achieves far more than sidestepping the common pitfalls of beautiful-mind storytelling; it takes a full-on, no-safety-net dramatic plunge. It presents Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, every bit as good as you’ve heard) as a cocky, witty, prickly, passionate, arrogant, lovable, and–yes–prodigiously intelligent character. It retraces his romance with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, equally impressive in a quieter and more controlled role) in exquisite and sometimes painful detail. Most remarkably, the movie worms its way into the philosophical heart of science, exploring unflinchingly what it means to think like a open-minded physicist.

Hawking (holding a handkerchief) with the Oxford Boat Club, early 1960s.

Hawking (holding a handkerchief) with the Oxford Boat Club, early 1960s.

This is where scientific biographies so often fall short. Many movies have depicted the curiosity that drives the science but lacked the courage to probe the complex motivations that underlie it. In The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking is a gleeful atheist who is relentless in rebutting his wife’s heartfelt Anglicanism. At the same time, he is absolutely devout in his conviction that scientific inquiry is the correct path toward truth. Following that path means that he must be free to question everything–even the ideas about the origin of the universe that he developed for his PhD thesis.

Watching Hawking go about overturning his own cosmology with even more joy than he experienced in developing it in the first place is an experience unlike any I can recall seeing on the screen. (Some writers gripe that the specific details have been fudged, but that misses the point.) Those scenes distill what is so powerful and so terrifying about science: The possibility that every idea is in error, that every theory is provisional, that every question can lead to an advance but also to yet another question. I caught up with director James Marsh to find out what it was like putting together this unique portrait.

How did you settle on a way to depict the inner life of a man who is famously closed off, both because of his intellect and his physical condition?

James Marsh: The way into the story was a portrait of a relationship. That relationship offers you perspective on Stephen’s career and ideas, but it’s anchored by a dramatic and emotional story that you can feel confident about telling. Film is really not the right arena or forum for theoretical physics, so what I tried to do—like Isaac Newton and the apple or Archimedes in his bath—is create imagery that could approximate, in a simple way, some of the ideas Stephen is wrestling with mathematically.

So you decided from the start there would be no floating equations or “genius” graphics?

JM: You can write equations on the blackboard–and we do that one time in the film when Stephen is possessed with an idea–but that’s really about the flow of the ideas, not mathematics that we expect you to understand. It’s quite a hard thing to do. My idea was to keep it quite basic. When Jane describes Stephen’s change of mind in a meal scene where she’s using peas and potatoes, that felt like a playful way of trying to explain something quite complicated, to root it in character as much as we could. My idea was not to get too trick-sy with it, to keep it at a fairly simple visual level.

Young Hawking at the blackboard--the closest the film comes to literal depictions of his theory. [Credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

Young Hawking at the blackboard–the closest the film comes to literal depictions of his theory. [Credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

The Theory of Everything treats Cambridge University almost as a character in itself. How did you capture the feel of British science in the 1960s?

JM: I’m a documentary filmmaker by background. The May Ball you see put on in the film was based on some film I’d seen of the May Ball in Cambridge in the ‘60s.  We looked at photographs trying to get the feel of it through the design of the film, and even through the language. Jane and Stephen speak a different version of English than I do, because they’re a different generation. Anthony [McCarten, who wrote the screenplay] caught that in his writing; he got that from Jane Hawking’s memoir [on which the screenplay is based], this slightly different way of speaking. All those little details help create a portrait of a world that doesn’t exist anymore.

What about the central challenge of getting into the mind of Stephen Hawking? How did you approach that? Did he help you out personally?

JM: We didn’t have a lot of contact before we made the film. We took the script to him and he gave his tacit approval to go ahead with a story about his intimate life–about his first marriage, which ended in failure. Then we took his team to the set when we were filming in Cambridge, and I think he enjoyed the spectacle we put on of the May Ball. When the film was almost finished we showed him more of it, and I do believe he was genuinely surprised–and he said as much–that it wasn’t terrible. I think he was quite moved by it.

Stephen, after seeing the film, said it felt to him to be broadly true. He also said that when he saw Eddie Redmayne’s performance at certain points he felt like he was watching himself, which is a great compliment to Eddie. Then he offered his actual voice. Up to that point in the production we were using a voice we’d created, a facsimile, but it wasn’t quite The Voice. He gave us that voice. That voice is what you hear in the film, and it changed things in a mysterious way. At the very end of our production we had this element that felt like it made it more interesting and more true.

Cambridge's May Ball, recreated for the film, with a lesson about fluorescence thrown in. [Credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

Cambridge’s May Ball, recreated for the film, with a lesson about fluorescence thrown in. [Credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

One of the most striking things about Stephen Hawking is how freely he embraces his contradictions–his willingness to change his mind.

JM: That’s because you’re basing things on evidence. The facts need to influence your conclusions, and in the realm of theoretical physics those facts are still being groped for. That’s an interesting part of science, that you have to be open to changing your mind. Many a great scientist does. It’s a hallmark of that thinking, that you’re open to the evidence changing your ideas. Which is true of a filmmaker, too. If things aren’t working you have to change how you’re doing it. If the results you’re getting don’t equate with what you want, you have to change your mind about how you’re doing something. There’s an analogy there I’m stumbling on just as we speak.

Previously you made a documentary called Project NIM, about chimp language. Are you particularly drawn to scientific themes?

JM: Project NIM was very different, it’s more about psychology, but I’ve found it out twice now: The drama can deal with huge aspects of human life and human emotion. Film is not often the best place to understand scientific ideas, but those ideas certainly can impact how people behave and how they relate to each other. In The Theory of Everything, Stephen is an atheist who believes science will answer the ineffable questions that we pose about the universe, and Jane believes God created a construct of the universe. My interest ultimately is in the human drama, and how the science and the quest for answers impacts people’s relationships with each other. That may be the common theme in those two films.

Stephen Hawking has a strong worldview. Did working on The Theory of Everything change the way you look at the world?

JM: One of the privileges of doing what I do as a filmmaker is that in each film you make, you have to reckon with the implications of the ideas you’re dealing with. I remember several weird lonely nights in hotel rooms just looking out at the sky and feeling diminished as a person—we’ll never understand what this is we’re in, I have this brief window of consciousness on the world and that’s all I’ve got, and that’s all anyone can have. This film was particularly interesting in that I had that almost cosmic sense of insignificance and the existential terror that goes with it. I had those moments of feeling totally and utterly insignificant in the scheme of things. But that happens to me on the New York subway sometimes as well.

These days, Hawking talks a lot about the dangers that threaten our survival of our species. Did you absorb some of that as well while working on the film?

JM: What he’s talking about is the fragility of our ecosystem, and what appears to be, as far as we can tell, our unique set of circumstances to have life on a planet in the first place. It feels like we have this amazing experiment going on with evolution and life, and how dare we destroy it? How dare we threaten it with our selfish concerns as a species? That’s the gist of his thought, and I go along with it.

For more on the film, and on broader physics and astronomy news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • Uncle Al

    One can only admire a quadraplegic who successfully commits adultery. Motivation is wonderful concept, personally and professionally.

  • Dean Jackson

    “One of the most striking things about Stephen Hawking is how freely he embraces his contradictions–his willingness to change his mind.”

    Hawking will have to change his whole world view thanks to the following discoveries I made back in 2012…

    The Physics Community gives the constant 0 (zero) to Gravitational Potential Energy (GPE). The Physics community says that the constant is an arbitrary value (any value will do, they say), yet:

    (1) this value of 0 (zero) for GPE is necessarily 1, since the POTENTIAL of anything at its maximum is always 100%; and

    (2) a GPE of 0 (zero) is necessary for Stephen Hawking and others who use that value in order to prove that our universe popped up from nothing: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.” – ‘God did not create the universe, says Hawking’, Reuters, By Michael Holden, LONDON | Thu Sep 2, 2010 9:08am EDT.

    For example, if the universe consisted of only the Earth and the Moon, and the Moon is catapulted so far away from the Earth that its gravitational energy no longer affects the Earth, the gravitational energy doesn’t disappear. According to the Law of Conservation of Energy, the gravitational energy becomes POTENTIAL energy (GPE). This GPE Stephen Hawking (and the Physics community) assigns the constant 0 (zero) to. Now, when we return the Moon back to Earth’s orbit, GPE is said to be -1, according to the Physics community.

    Here’s the math for Stephen Hawking and the Physics community and my correction:

    Earth’s mass [1] + Moon’s GPE when back in Earth’s orbit [-1] = 0, so universes are for free,

    however if we use correct constants for what we are describing, the equation reads like this:

    Earth’s mass [1] + Moon’s GPE when back in Earth’s orbit [0] = 1, so universes are not for free.

    Let’s further examine the above:

    When the Moon’s GPE ceases when back in Earth’s orbit, that is when ACTUAL Gravitational Kinetic Energy (GKE) is 100%, which would have a constant of 1. Now GKE is simply the CONVERSE of GPE, so now let’s move the Moon away from the Earth again. KGE declines as the Moon moves further away from the Earth (.9, .8, .7, .6 and so on), and conversely GPE increases (.1, .2, .3, .4, .5 and so on until the Moon has reached infinity distance from the Earth, in which case, logically, GPE would be 1, not 0).

    GKE and GPE are the same phenomena, just separated by space, not unlike the duel sides of a coin. This converse relationship between GKE and GPE is also the discovery of what I call the Gravitational Converse Principle.

    Stephen Hawking’s (and the Physics Community) assignment of the constant zero to GPE at infinity is inexplicable.


    1. If GPE is 0 (zero) at infinity, then there can be no GKE; and

    2. ask yourself how could Stephen Hawking and the Physics Community not know what “potential” means by assigning 0 (zero) to something (in this particular case, Gravitation POTENTIAL Energy) that is 100% potential? Obviously, if something is 100%, the constant one would use to quantify it is 1, and such a constant wouldn’t be an arbitrary assignment (as the Physics Community says the assignment of the constant zero to GPE is, it could be any number, they say), it would be a NECESSARY assignment.

  • SayWhat?

    Well, I suppose I’ll be the one that gets ridiculed this time here by some one. But I takum chance.

    I may not have the deep understanding of all the genius’ out there like Stephen Hawking and others, but I do understand one thing. And that is; that for things – any ‘thing’ – to work, It has to have laws. Physical laws, quantum laws, gravity, particle, time, space… what have you. For the universe or universes – for anything, or everything to spontaneously come into existence, there must have been laws first, so as to shape the nature of whatever it is that spontaneously comes into existence.

    I guess my question – to everyone in the scientific community that always points to some theoretical self-induced manifestation of the universe – is: if we have nothing, not even laws, in the beginning – how can anything start?

    And please do not paint me as some religious nut trying to prove that some god did all this. A layman, when it comes to theories, yes. But whatever “faith” I may or may not have has nothing to do with this. I am asking a serious question that – no theory I have ever read, and I have read and TRIED to understand many, has ever answered this fundamental question for me.

    It is my understanding that all equations are based on laws, and laws are what govern the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of things. And no theory has ever explained to me how laws spontaneously came into being, let alone the universe they created.

    If anyone can explain that to me I’d be most grateful – Thanks.

    • Satya Sunder Ghosh

      The basic law is second law of thermodynamics, it is a state & doesnot require a beginning

      • SayWhat?

        No, you haven’t explained a thing. You’re just replacing one “thing” with another. So laws need a beginning but a state doesn’t huh? Why? Who says so? A “LAW” of thermodynamics? Well how did that law come into being? Why would a “state” not require a beginning? It must have some parameters in order for it to be a state and for it to exist. Where did those parameters come from?

        • Gaven

          Either you have never taken a physics course in your life or you didn’t pay any attention in the one you did. I will wager on the former, but the latter would clearly be just as valid given the questions you just asked.

          Here’s a solution – Go get educated in physics, at an actual school, with an actual physics teacher/professor, come back here and let everyone know how ignorant you were in your first post, and then dazzle us with your learned brilliance in physics by providing the answers to your own questions.

          How the universe as a whole functions will make a lot more sense to you after you are edified. Until then, feel free to remain in a perpetual state of scientific ignorance and sans the answers to the questions you raise.

          • SayWhat?

            You still haven’t answered my question. Nice bashing though. You, I see, have successfully completed the school of A-holes. Congrats!

          • SayWhat?

            I already stated that I am not well educated in physics. But my question remains unanswered. I didn’t ask how matter or states or time or dimensions came into existence. I already believe I have a fairly good understanding of that. What I do not understand is how the laws (second law of thermodynamics included) that allow the existence of everything came into being. Oh and, Gaven – I’ve thought about what you said and I decided, I’d rather be ignorant than a first rate a-hole.

    • David Thomson

      I read the other replies and they don’t seem to understand your question. I may not either but I’ll take a crack at it because I think I understand.

      What makes up laws is particles and energy. Gravity is a type of wave or energy that has a particle that is responsible for it to happen. Without that gravity causing particle we wouldn’t have gravity. Different particles are responsible for different laws. Without the particles how would the laws exist? They wouldn’t. Kinda like without humans, rules governing humans wouldn’t exist.

      But your question still stands. The laws might of been different if the structure of the particles was different enough to give a different resulting law. So why are the particles structured how they are? The simple answer to that is there needs to be a structure. No matter how many ways you arrange a deck of cards there is an order to those cards. You could throw the deck of cards on the ground, pick them up and you will have a set order to those cards.

      The Structure of particles needed to have a structure or an order because without an order they do not exist. If there is no first or last place in a race then that means there is no race.

      I hope I’ve answered your question even if it was on a hypothetical level, since science hasn’t explored many of the smallest particles that would be responsible for the makeup of laws. Put simply Laws come from the structure of particles, the particles are structured the way they are because they need to be in some kind of structure, even if it is random.

      The problem with asking what things came from is that they may not have come from anything, they may have always been (maybe not how they are now). A true beginning to everything(known and not known) is impossible, because to have a beginning would mean something before it caused that beginning, making it no longer the beginning, because something happened before it.

      • SayWhat?

        Thank you David, for not resorting to insulting me in place of a good answer. And you’ve indeed answered my question as best as I’ve heard anywhere. Being an avid reader of these things and not such a genius :) at understanding them, I appreciate your dumbing it down for me so that I can understand it. Thanks again.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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