Flawed Scientific Geniuses on the Big Screen: A Review of Two New Movies: The Stephen Hawking Biography the Theory of Everything, and the Alan Turing Biography the Imitation Game

By Prothero, Donald | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Flawed Scientific Geniuses on the Big Screen: A Review of Two New Movies: The Stephen Hawking Biography the Theory of Everything, and the Alan Turing Biography the Imitation Game


Prothero, Donald, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


AS 2014 came to an end two out standing biopics about two of the most brilliant British mathematicians and scientists of the mid-late 20th century had been released, one on cosmologist Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), and the other on mathematician/cryptanalyst/computer pioneer Alan Turing (The Imitation Game). Both films are outstanding, not only in their acting, writing, directing, and cinematography, but especially their relatively accurate and sympathetic portrayal of science, with all its struggles and triumphs.

The Theory of Everything focuses mostly on the early part of Hawking's life, when he went from an awkward but brilliant mathematician and physicist who was still physically able, through the gradual deterioration of his body due to the effects of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the famous New York Yankee who died from it). We see his early beginnings as a smart but socially clumsy and isolated youth who quickly discovers his enormous talent for math and physics. He is earning his doctorate when the first symptoms strike. He manages to woo his wife Jane before he becomes an invalid, and most of the movie is devoted to his deteriorating condition and the huge burden it placed on his wife and family. Your heart goes out to this genius imprisoned by paralysis, and you find yourself trying to reach out and help him as he becomes more and more helpless.

Hawking eventually becomes unable to communicate the brilliant ideas that were running through his head until a voice synthesizer and computer are fitted to his wheelchair. The script is a bit light on the scientific side of the story, and I would like to have seen more explanation of what kind of science they were pioneering and why it was so significant, but such is not to be expected from a movie aimed at a popular audience assumed to have no knowledge of science. (An earlier biopic about Hawking, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, focused primarily on the science of Hawking's graduate school days, showing how he devised his early ideas about black holes and the origin of the universe in a big bang.) The film ends on a positive note, with Hawking receiving honors from the Queen herself, and reconciled with Jane after their divorce, even as he is reduced to controlling his wheelchair and his voice synthesizer by his facial muscles.

The Imitation Game is very different in tone. Turing was another isolated genius, always the smartest person in the room--and never afraid to say it. Turing was not affected by ALS, but had a different problem: autism-spectrum disorder (ASD), which made him socially inept, unable to read people or understand subtle verbal cues or a joke, and constantly saying things bluntly and offending people without intention. As someone who knows a lot of ASD people, I was tremendously moved by his predicament, and recognized all the same behaviors that are familiar to most of us today. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, ASD was not diagnosed, and so he was just an "odd duck" and people laughed at him and insulted him to his face. Luckily, Turing was probably one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, and soon developed talents not only for mathematics, but also for puzzles and eventually cryptography. More importantly, his intelligence became essential as the British government recruited him to break the seemingly unbreakable codes of the Enigma cipher machines used by Nazi Germany during World War II. Despite the scorn of his co-workers and superiors, he eventually triumphs in inventing a machine that could decipher German coded communications in minutes. As Winston Churchill and others have noted, this technology became essential to the survival of Britain and may have helped win the war two years earlier, saving millions of lives. …

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