'The Theory of Everything' Is Really About the Limits of Science

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. Liam Daniel / Universal Pictures International

It's hard to imagine being told that you have only two years to live. It's even harder to imagine hearing that as a 21-year-old.

But that's exactly what happened to Stephen Hawking in 1963.

Hawking spent his early years in fine physical health. But he began having trouble with coordination and muscle tremors during his physics studies at the University of Cambridge in the early 1960s. He was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, now known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which leads to wasting of muscles and—at the time, for most people—probable death within a few years.

But Hawking did not give up on his life, nor did he relinquish his devotion to cosmology. And he didn't abandon his sweetheart Jane Wilde, who shortly thereafter became his (first) wife. The tale of their romance, marriage and life thereafter is told poignantly in The Theory of Everything, which premieres Friday, November 7. The film shows how utterly persistent Hawking was in both his personal and work life, in spite of what was essentially a death sentence.

Still going strong at 72, Hawking signed off on the movie and gave the film permission to use his robotized voice (produced by his portable voice machine), says actor Eddie Redmayne, who portrays the scientist. Hawking selects words by indicating letters on a screen using cheek muscles.

Redmayne vanishes into Hawking's character, in a performance that has made him into one of the top contenders for an Oscar, according to critics and online oddsmakers. To transform into the wheelchair-bound cosmologist, the actor visited a motor neuron disease clinic in London over the course of four months to meet with patients and understand how the syndrome affects them physically and emotionally. The actor also met with Hawking himself.

"He would look with a kind of wry smile, with this glint in his eye," Redmayne tells Newsweek. "The amazing thing I took from that meeting was his razor humor, and wit, and this extraordinary capacity for living forward, living optimistically...to recover despite having obstacle after obstacle thrown in front of him."

That determination comes across in the movie, as does the dedication of Jane Hawking (played brilliantly by Felicity Jones) in taking care of him, along with their three children. The film is based on her 2007 memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.

But the film also shows a darker side of Hawking's personality: the obstinacy, shortness and occasional arrogance. And it shows how Jane and Stephen's marriage eventually fell apart, as they both found somebody new.

The romance ties the story together, and seems at first most unlikely: Hawking is an insistent atheist intent upon coming up with a "theory of everything"; Jane is an Anglican who believes in a supreme creator, and her faith defines her.

It somehow works—until it doesn't. The romance (and its breakdown) juxtaposes nicely with Hawking's search for answers through rational inquiry, and it points out a paradox that has probably occurred to many a science lover at some point: Science and math can help us explain the farthest reaches of the universe, but they haven't yet shed much light about love and the mysteries of what it means to be human.