Moorad Alexanian wrote:
> 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.
There's another important difference. There was observational
confirmation of important theoretical predictions made by the first 5 within a
few years of their work. There have been no such confirmations of Hawking's
work. 100 years from now his name may be as familiar as Einstein's - or as
obscure as Nordstroem's. Time & the progress of physics will tell.
George L. Murphy
"The Science-Theology Interface"
> 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
> reader-friendly book.
> 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
> Ms Mason.
> 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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