The crazy world of Stephen Hawking
Scientists don't generally become cult figures, and their books aren't
usually blockbusters. So, asks Charles Arthur, what's so special about
Stephen Hawking? And how do fellow physicists react to his fame?
12 October 2001
Spot the odd one out: Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, James Clerk
Maxwell, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Stephen Hawking. Did you get it? Of
course, the answer is Professor Hawking. Why? Well, the others are all dead;
and are also the top five physicists of all time, as voted by their peers in
a 1999 survey by Physics World, the house magazine for physicists.
But Professor Hawking didn't come sixth. In fact, he wasn't even the
highest-ranked living physicist when his peers came to vote; that honour
went to Hans Bethe (a Nobel prizewinner who, in the 1930s, deduced the
nuclear reactions that power stars). He wasn't even the second-ranked living
physicist. About 10 other people were named as having been just as important
in their contributions to the science that attempts to explain how the
universe works. Professor Hawking was way down the rankings, well outside
the top 10.
So, why is it then that the average member of the public is sure that
Professor Hawking, 60 next January, who since 1979 has held the chair of
Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, is simply the
most brilliant scientist ever since Einstein? Why is it he who gets cameos
on Star Trek and The Simpsons, and has fireside chats with the President of
the United States (as he did in 1998), when most of his colleagues –
including Professor Bethe – labour in comparative obscurity, in ageing
facilities, doodling equations on blackboards and computer screens? And what
do the physicists themselves think of that difference?
Ask around, and you begin to get the impression that there are people whose
feathers are ruffled by Professor Hawking's fame. Peter Coles, professor of
astronomy at the University of Nottingham, says: "Coffee-time talks in
physics departments often come up with the same topic: it's very difficult
to get anybody to say anything critical of him. But to have somebody like
that in an establishment that runs on peer review isn't healthy. The trouble
is, people fear that they will be thought of as jealous."
However, Bernard Carr, a friend of Hawking's who is professor of astronomy
at Queen Mary College, London, says: "The fact is, he is a great physicist.
To say he's the greatest since Einstein is an exaggeration, but he's a cult
figure with the public, and that has to be good for the subject."
"There's a difference between views inside the physics community and
outside," says Peter Rodgers, editor of Physics World. "Inside, he's
recognised for a couple of important works, but he has never set himself up
as the new Newton or anything. But outside, he's famous because of that
Which book? Why, A Brief History of Time, of course, his 1988 blockbuster
that has sold more than 10 million copies and been turned into a TV series.
There's probably a copy of the book in every aspirational middle-class home,
and equally probably, the last 20 pages remain unperused by human eyes.
Brief History must rank alongside James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, as the most
regularly unfinished book.
It's worth noting that, when it was published, the reviews were not
rapturous. A reviewer in The Economist described it as a
"not-altogether-satisfactory explanation, to the layman, of the ideas that
have earned him so much respect among his colleagues... the presentation is
disappointing... there is little sense of how and why people chose to ask
the questions to which the book provides simplified answers".
That didn't stop it taking off, and even defining a genre of books that
people buy but don't actually read: "social furniture". Now he has written
another one, called The Universe in a Nutshell, which is being pushed as a
"very optimistic" look at the future. The publishers are preparing a huge
marketing push to promote it, with advertising campaigns in trade magazines
and bookshops. They are also keen to emphasise that this time, it is a
But when it arrives in November, can it possibly elevate his status any
further? Or will it lead to the reverse, as inevitably happens to those
caught in the spiral of fame, where the upward path abruptly turns downward?
Hawking himself has long been protected from the usual intrusions of
celebrity by the combination of his subject matter and his disability. While
many people can argue about whether or not Victoria Beckham can sing in key,
only top-flight physicists are in a position to determine whether black
holes are really able to emit heat (so-called "Hawking radiation", predicted
in a paper by him in 1975).
His disability, the result of motor neurone disease (MND), marks him out
and, many believe, has given him the pre-eminence in the public eye that he
would never have had if he were just an average dishevelled physics teacher
in a provincial university who happened to write an interesting but
impenetrable book. Confined to a wheelchair, able to communicate only
through a computerised voice (now a baritone rather than his former android
burr), where he must laboriously type each answer, he has become iconic.
"He's instantly recognisable," says Professor Coles. "That also made
Einstein famous. He's unique in the way he has to communicate, and the fact
that he's suffered this illness most of his adult life. That means that
there's sympathy, and people also marvel that he has done so much."
He has also escaped many of the other trappings of fame – such as tabloid
fascination with his private life. This, despite a love life worthy of Robin
Cook. In 1990, he left Jane, his wife of 30 years, to move in with Elaine
Mason – one of his nurses, whose former husband had developed the voice
synthesiser that provided Hawking's "voice". In 1995, the pair married
quietly. Last year, when police were alerted to a series of mysterious
injuries sustained by Hawking, he refused to make a statement and the matter
was dropped by the police and the press.
Then, in 1999, his former wife published Music To Move The Stars: My Life
with Stephen, in which she detailed the grind of being married to someone
who needed constant care while she also looked after a young family (Hawking
has three children and a grandchild); of how her Christian faith clashed
with his steadfast atheism; of how she felt increasingly sidelined as his
fame grew following the book's publication. "Outside the marriage, and apart
from Stephen, I was nothing," she wrote. He then began a relationship with
News of the affair always generates the same reaction: not "why?" but "how?"
But that follows from the natural belief that because Hawking is paralysed,
he is helpless. In fact, he is known for an incisive wit; the story is told
of how he gave a physics talk at a London university, and then went out for
a curry with some friends there. The head of department was talking about
how some of the students had been ringing phone sex lines, and showed
everyone the bill. Abruptly, the sound of a lesbian tryst began issuing from
the loudspeaker on Hawking's chair: he had dialled one of the numbers from
the bill on his onboard phone. "He had everybody laughing," recalls one.
"There was not much movement in his face, but there was a real smile in his
It is worth noting that he is not above manipulating people's thinking about
him to his benefit. The last line in A Brief History Of Time is famous for
saying that, if we could tie together the equations describing the universe,
we would "know the mind of God". But, as his former wife says, he is an
atheist. So why is the deity making an appearance? The obvious answer is
that it helps sell books. It is notable that in 1997, Professor Hawking
admitted that he had been over-optimistic in predicting in 1980 that we
would have such a "unified theory" by 2000; but, like a backgammon player,
he then doubled, insisting that in 20 years, we would have. Quite what his
contribution to that unified theory would be is unclear. Physics remains a
discipline where theories are examined on their merits, not those of the
writer; though it would not hurt a rising scientist to be linked with the
Lucasian Professor. But the answers won't come from one very clever
scientist, insists Professor Carr.
"The media like to think that there's just a few key people responsible for
the big breakthroughs," he says. "In fact, there are hundreds of people
working away at all the little problems that make up the big problem. The
public likes to think that science progresses by big eureka moments. But it
doesn't. In fact, it's a lot of little ones."
That doesn't mean, though, that some scientists don't use the press, and
hype, to get more visibility, which leads to better grants for themselves
and their employers. Moreover, Professor Hawking's iconic appearance has led
to companies falling over themselves to sponsor him and Cambridge
University. Microsoft has a research campus there, inspired by Nathan
Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at the giant software
corporation; he was a former student of Hawking's. Compaq also rushed to
provide his onboard computer, confident that he would provide better
visibility than any other scientist in the world.
Yet the spiral of celebrity is relentless. It troubles some scientists, who
think he has become too famous. One was heard to grumble, while waiting to
be interviewed for a scene in the TV series Stephen Hawking's Universe, that
"It's not Stephen Hawking's..." Professor Coles says: "He deliberately
places himself as a mystical figure: the things he works on are so far
removed from everyday experience that people feel he's got an insight into
the workings of the universe. And people find it thrilling. The idea that
somebody can understand these things – well, they revere people who, they
think, can understand the universe for them, when they can't."
Hawking himself says (on his personal website at www.hawking.org.uk): "I
don't pay much attention to how journalists describe me. I know it is media
hype. They need an Einstein-like figure to appeal to. But for them to
compare me to Einstein is ridiculous. They don't understand either
Einstein's work, or mine."
"It's like priests in medieval times," says Professor Coles. "They could do
the understanding of God's work for the masses." Perhaps this then is the
true face of God: not understanding – but passing off the job to someone
else. In Stephen Hawking's case, it may be that we, the public, have found a
true face of God: inscrutable, intelligent, and so remote that we can always
put our own reading on to it.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
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