My Brief History, by Stephen Hawking, Bantam Press, RRP£12.99/$22, 144 pages
An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, RRP£20/Ecco, RRP$27.99, 328 pages
The simultaneous publication of memoirs by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast Britain’s most famous scientists. It is also a reminder that these two remarkable men have rather more in common than we think.
Most striking is the similarity in their backgrounds. They were born in the early 1940s to families in the professional middle class – not wealthy but comfortably off, with a strong commitment to intellectual endeavour and public service. Both had fathers working in the British colonies of east Africa, who were keen to send their sons to their old Oxford colleges – and both succeeded, Dawkins reading zoology at Balliol and Hawking physics at University College.
Neither author takes a very favourable retrospective view of his secondary education in the 1950s, though both went to good independent schools. At Oundle, Dawkins writes, the dominant motivation for doing anything was peer pressure and the ethos of his peers was anti-intellectual, with an antipathy to hard work. “There was too much adulation of the rugby team and too little prestige attached to intelligence or scholarship.”