History will presumably be his judge (if there’s enough of it left for that to happen), but on the whole, from this perspective Stephen Hawking, who has just died, seems to be one of the most important physicists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His death, though a sad loss, is also one of the least sudden deaths ever because he was given less than a year to live way back in the 1960s.
I first came across the guy in January 1977 when he appeared on Nigel Calder’s ‘Key To The Universe’ documentary. At that point he didn’t have the speech synthesiser and could just about speak for himself, although it took him a very long time to get things across. More specifically, he was on the programme to talk about Hawking Radiation, which was one of his major discoveries and which I’ve mentioned on here before. Just briefly (the link is of course most verbose), the event horizon of a black hole “glows” very faintly indeed with radiation because virtual particles and their antiparticles are generated on its surface but one of each pair is too close to the black hole to escape, meaning that they don’t cancel each other out, which is what happens elsewhere in the Universe, and the accountancy of the Universe requires that the black hole loses mass in the form of those particles which escape their fate, meaning that over a ridiculously long period of time, large black holes “evaporate”. Small black holes also evaporate but over a much shorter period of time, meaning that the theorised tiny black holes which may be created in particle accelerator experiments are no threat to the existence of the planet because they disappear almost instantly via the same process.
I have to be honest here and confess that I don’t agree with certain of Hawking’s pronouncements. For instance, he was very concerned about the threats he saw as posed by extraterrestrial intelligence and AI, which I don’t think can constitute a problem, although I won’t go into that here because it seems inappropriate right now. On the other hand, his insistance that we colonise space I agree with 100%. He clearly was a bit of a media star, but I won’t hold that against him either because of the inspiration he constitutes in various ways. Nor will I hold the apparent keenness on publicity and celebrity he seems to have had against him, partly because I’m faintly aware of how the media can take their image of you and market it beyond your control, and also because I don’t see why he shouldn’t have enjoyed it, given his contribution to science.
This book is of course available from all good High Street bookshops, but quite significantly also from libraries, and it’s here where I get a bit annoyed on Hawking’s behalf. It seems that if you calculate the ratio between sales of books and loans from libraries, this book is one of the least borrowed compared to purchases. This is thought to be because people either start reading it and give up or they use it as a kind of showy “trophy” book advertising how apparently intellectual and intelligent one is rather than one which people actually read and understand. And this is odd, because in fact it’s a very accessible, lucid, readable book and not even a particularly long read, strongly suggesting that people don’t even try to understand him. Maybe they’re just intimidated by the idea that his ideas are complex. This particular take on it brings to mind his own life.
After his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease (incidentally the terminology of this illness differs between Britain and the US – specifically Hawking had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), as I said he was expected to live less than a year, but he clearly defied expectations. There was nothing physically wrong with my maternal grandfather over most of his life but he still died younger than Hawking. It’s tempting to think that this is a case of mind over matter but to be honest I don’t know why he lived so long. If that’s so, the effect of his self-belief and determination is the opposite to the effect of self-doubt which seems to stop many readers understanding his book, which unsurprisingly is only one of several. On the other hand, the idea that this is what happened could easily be exploited to portray other disabled people as malingerers or faking it, and we should guard against the likes of this conclusion. To be honest I have no idea why he lived so long.
Hawking chose a public identity based on his synthesised voice. Although it was presumably state of the art at the time, technology has since moved on and today’s voice synthesisers for the disabled plainly do a much better job of copying the human vocal tract than his did. However, since he was so strongly identified with the character of his machine, he chose not to change it and owned it as his voice. So strongly is the sound associated with him that it has inspired the likes of ‘MC Hawking‘, because unlike most people’s voices, his can easily be copied exactly and has very much become his own voice. This raises the question of what counts as natural. As tool-users and cultural entities there’s a sense in which we are all cyborgs, and whereas Hawking’s voice may make that more obvious, the same is true of all of us to some degree.
Hawking is also apparently currently in the Hexagonal Phase of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy‘ as the voice of the Guide itself. He has also appeared in ‘Star Trek TNG’ as a hologram, which as soon as I saw it made me wonder exactly when he would die. Well now we know. I may be wrong about this but I seem to remember that the android Data eventually took up his position at Cambridge although this may well be incorrect. Apart from that, he appeared in ‘The Simpsons’ and, I’m sure, many other TV series and films, and of course in ‘The Theory Of Everything’, whose has currently been sitting on the table next to me for months.
The Theory Of Everything itself is of course the goal beyond the Grand Unified Theory, an attempt to explain the four forces of physics as merging into a single force at high energy, unfortunately so high that it’s difficult to test. These four forces are electromagnetism, the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravity. Electricity and magnetism were unified long ago when a scientist noticed that a compass needle was attracted to a wire through which an electric current passed, leading to the invention of electronics, including the more obvious loudspeaker, microphone, dynamo, generator, electric motor and a whole array of other devices, which makes me wonder, perhaps naïvely, what other kinds of devices could be created if the other forces are united in a useful manner, although it’s not about the technology so much as the lofty goal of the science. Since I’m vaguely aware that scientists refer to the electroweak force nowadays, well, something is going on, and of course Stephen Hawking’s name is associated with the phrase ‘The Theory Of Everything’ since he popularised it in the book.
Hawking has, unfairly in my opinion, been used as a symbol of masculinity separating mind and body. Whereas it’s true, as he himself said, that theoretical physics is one of those pursuits which physical disability is less of a barrier in pursuing, towards the end of the ’80s there was a tendency to view his work as rational and detached to a fault. Although I agree to a considerable extent that even natural science is socially constructed and has patriarchal elements, this specific idea amounted in my opinion to ableism, although to be fair it was before the idea of intersectionality was popular. This was several years before the Sokal hoax paper ‘The Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity’ was published, when social constructivism in a cultural theory style was at its height.
Having said that, I’m fully aware that Hawking was a product of his time and place like all of us, and that he had a certain reputation in terms of relationships which probably wasn’t entirely admirable, but today is not the time to repeat those.
I don’t believe in the Great Man Theory Of History of course, and I’m sure that in the absence of Hawking’s career, someone else would’ve come up with the theories he in fact did. Nonetheless, the fact remains that history chose to use him as the channel through which we learned of these ideas, and as such, and for other reasons, his life deserves to be celebrated.
I’ve had to rush this out, so it might be a bit slipshod but I couldn’t leave this uncommented upon, so here it is. I have other thoughts about him which I haven’t expressed here, but this will do for now. Nobody’s perfect.