Re: The crazy world of Stephen Hawking

From: george murphy (
Date: Wed Oct 17 2001 - 14:14:49 EDT

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    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
    > book."
    > 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
    > eyes."
    > 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 "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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