Revisiting the Unusual Celebrity of Stephen Hawking
The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity
By Charles Seife
Stephen Hawking was, by a wide margin, the best-known figure from the world of science from the mid-1980s until his death in 2018. “Hawking Hawking,” by the accomplished science journalist and historian Charles Seife, is a tough-minded portrait of the theoretical physicist. Taken literally, though, the book’s provocative title is misleading: “Hawking Hawking” is a full-fledged biography, not an exposé or takedown. But the title accurately captures the book’s iconoclastic spirit. This is not another contribution to the vast Hawking hagiography.
Let me briefly recall the most basic facts of Hawking’s life. In 1942 he was born in Oxford, England, into an accomplished medical and academic family. He received his undergraduate degree from Oxford and got his Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1966, largely based on his mathematical proof that showed that an expanding universe must begin in a singularity — the singularity theorem.
As early as 1963 he began to develop symptoms of motor neurone disease, also known as A.L.S. This disease typically runs a fatal course within a few years, but Hawking’s illness developed slowly. Still, his condition worsened over time. By the late 1970s his speech was difficult to understand and he was in a wheelchair. Despite his physical challenges Hawking continued to produce good work in physics, including most notably his startling theoretical demonstration, in 1974, that black holes should spontaneously radiate — a phenomenon that came to be known as Hawking radiation. Although observation has been elusive owing to the smallness of the effect, Hawking radiation is one of the most outstanding applications of quantum mechanics to gravitation, and it continues to inspire hundreds of research papers yearly.
In 1979 Hawking was appointed to the Lucasian professorship at Cambridge, a position previously occupied by Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac. “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking’s presentation of his work for a popular audience, appeared in 1988 and it made the best-seller lists for several years. Stephen Hawking became an iconic celebrity, instantly recognizable to millions if not billions of people all over the world.
Though it is not an authorized biography, “Hawking Hawking” is deeply researched and richly sourced. It incorporates fresh interviews with many people who interacted closely with Hawking, including students, collaborators and intellectual rivals.
This is a book meant for general readers. It describes the cultural and the broad scientific context of Hawking’s work, and its reception, but it does not provide self-contained accounts of the work itself. If you want to learn what singularity theorems, Hawking radiation or the no-boundary proposal is all about, you will have to look elsewhere. Seife succeeds in serving up something of the flavor of those difficult and rather esoteric ideas, which are the heart of Hawking’s contribution to science, in a way that won’t give general readers indigestion. But it may leave you hungry for more. If so, so much the better, because even Wikipedia and Google will reward your motivated searches.
It’s worth noting Seife’s odd choice to narrate his story using reverse chronology. He begins thus with Hawking’s death and ends with his childhood. It’s an unusual but stimulating structure. Indeed, the phenomenon of a nearly “locked-in,” physically helpless and noncommunicative figure, having inspired the adulation of millions for his intellectual mastery over the universe, being interred next to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, is so extraordinary that unraveling step by step the question of “How did this happen?” might keep you turning the pages. But the time-reversed narrative is not well matched to how readers usually understand stories, nor to the logical evolution of ideas. I had to jump around quite a bit, and I imagine that people less familiar with the science could easily lose the thread.
In the popular imagination Hawking was a transcendent scientist and a pure spirit who courageously overcame profound physical disabilities while he also happened to become a publishing sensation and a performance icon, more or less as a trivial consequence. That image is recognizably based on a uniquely inspiring life of achievement, but, as Seife amply documents, it paints an idealized picture. Hawking did important work in two splendid but rather speculative, unworldly branches of theoretical physics, namely the mathematical theories (as opposed to the phenomenology) of black holes and of Big Bang cosmology. He most certainly did not pioneer a “Theory of Everything,” as was often reported, nor did practicing physicists hang onto his every pronouncement. He did his best work well before the worst of his physical deterioration, and his personal life was in parts problematic. “A Brief History of Time,” his runaway hit, is not a masterpiece of science or of exposition; and its production and promotion was a calculated team effort.
I got to know Hawking well during a weeklong conference on cosmology he organized (together with Gary Gibbons) in the summer of 1983. By this time his speech was unintelligible at first exposure, but with a bit of practice one got to understand it, and more-or-less normal conversations were possible. He and his first wife, Jane Wilde, were very gracious hosts to me and my wife, Betsy Devine, when we arrived with a baby and young child in tow. He was a good-humored and witty person. At one point, he enjoyed playing chess with Betsy while baby Mira methodically undid his shoelaces. We became family friends. The conference proved to be a milestone event, where the central ideas of inflationary cosmology came together and axion cosmology was born. Hawking participated actively in the scientific program, often making sharp observation and posing tough questions, besides putting forward his own version of inflation. In retrospect this conference, sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, may have marked Hawking’s high point as a practicing scientist. There he guided a new generation of physicists and cosmologists in directions that built on his earlier and ongoing work.
In 1985 Hawking suffered a serious case of pneumonia, which almost killed him. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, after which speech was impossible. He eventually found a computerized speech device that could translate his limited motions into an artificial but very impressive voice. The system was cumbersome and slow, but the theatrical effect it produced, especially in rehearsed presentations on an open stage, was mesmerizing. This was the version of Hawking that most of his public got to know.
The effects of Hawking’s celebrity were complicated, too.
On the positive side: It focused attention on his courage and perseverance in the face of terrible adversity, which can serve as an inspiration to everyone, and especially to people with physical disabilities. It also lent glamour and the spotlight to science, which is poorly represented in popular culture. (That the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” might be the most prominent recent depiction of science highlights the problem.) And for Stephen, in what could have been very bleak circumstances, it offered gratification and new experiences.
But: The elevation of tenuous “Theories of Everything” — validated through celebrity rather than by empirical facts — over the vast, open-ended enterprise of engaging the physical world scientifically was, and is, deeply corrosive. His status as an idol was also, I think, hard on Stephen. He knew better. Less would have been more.
Seife has performed an important service by documenting Stephen Hawking’s life as it actually happened. It is what a great scientist deserves, and should expect.
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