Books April 2021
A theory of something
A review of Hawking Hawking by Charles Seife.
The title of this book is so extremely clever that one suspects that someone would have felt obliged to write an accompanying book once apprised of it. Whoever thought of it had a small stroke of genius.
Nevertheless, it is a slightly misleading title because it promises rather more material to provoke the reader’s moral outrage than it delivers. It is true that publishers in particular took advantage of Stephen Hawking’s tragic situation as the victim of a progressive neurological condition—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in England as motor neurone disease and in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease—to publicize his books and promote his persona. But if this was exploitation, it was the exploitation of someone who was only too willing to be exploited.
The story of Hawking’s life is remarkable, indeed one of the most remarkable that could well be imagined. Like many a brilliantly gifted person, he was not stretched intellectually at school or even as an undergraduate, hiding his boredom and his brilliance with moderately insouciant behavior; it was only when he started original research that his brilliance as a physicist began to manifest itself. At the same time, however, he suffered from the first symptoms of als, which carried a prognosis of death within three years. Remarkably, he outlived his prognosis—which was statistically correct—by half a century, marrying (twice), fathering three children, making important contributions to the science of cosmology, being appointed to the chair in Cambridge that the great Newton held, writing a best-selling book, and becoming by far the most famous scientist in the world—despite the fact that for much of that time he could not walk or talk or look after himself in the most minimal way. He was a public communicator who lacked the normal human means of communication that most of us take so much for granted.
“Yes.” There is a wealth of tragedy in that monosyllable.
Who would not be moved by this story? What defects of character, such as we all possess, could seriously detract from this example of the triumph of the human spirit over extreme adversity? Hawking himself never gave way to self-pity or complaint; he always insisted that he was not being brave, but merely dealing as best he could with circumstances as they had arisen. He was not being self-deprecatory in such a way as to attract even more praise to himself; he wanted above all to be known as a scientist rather than as a man who had made something of his life despite a handicap that would have defeated most people. Occasionally, he would even claim that his chronic progressive illness had even been an advantage to him, since it had freed him from the obligation to perform extraneous time-consuming tasks such as teaching and allowed him to concentrate on his beloved physics. But his inability to write anything down severely handicapped his capacity to perform complex mathematical calculations, and his phenomenal memory was no substitute for a pencil and a few pages of paper. On one occasion, he let his guard drop: asked if he would exchange his exceptional intellectual prowess for the ability to walk and talk normally, he replied “Yes.” There is a wealth of tragedy in that monosyllable.
Charles Seife has written a biography of Hawking that is a mixture of scientific vulgarization and gossip. I have to confess that much of the science was quite beyond me, as I suspect that it will be for many, probably most, people. The author is not to blame for this; I think that no one would be able to explain the science to me any better than he, and the author certainly cannot be accused of willful obscurity. But it does mean that many quite closely printed pages will simply pass over the head of the average reader (if I am included in that category).
More seriously, the author has chosen to write his subject’s biography backwards, from maturity to infancy. Perhaps he took the idea from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Fitzgerald in turn may have had it from Eden Philpotts’s novel A Deal with the Devil), or perhaps he wanted to shake the complacency of those of us who still think we live in a Newtonian universe and for whom time remains an absolute measure, an inexorable, unidirectional forward march of events. Be that as it may, as a biographical device I found it distracting rather than illuminating. It makes for a jerky rather than a smooth narrative, placing an unnecessary strain on the reader’s mind, for each chapter oscillates backwards and forwards so that one is often not quite sure of the temporal relation of what is being discussed to what one has already read and to what is to come. A more conventional approach, beginning with birth and ending with death, would have been better; sometimes convention is superior to originality or eccentricity.
The arcana of cosmology and astrophysics are completely closed to me. I cannot grasp imaginatively the idea of a finite, or for that matter infinite, universe; likewise I cannot grasp imaginatively the idea of the Big Bang, now confidently said to have occurred 13,800,000,000 years ago, which created the universe. In my primitive way I want to ask, created out of what, exactly? Roger Penrose, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2020, says that our universe is headed for obliteration and replacement by another, but the very idea of a universe other than our own, as if a universe could be like a hotel bedroom or alternatively an act in a play—depending on whether different universes are, like prison sentences, consecutive or concurrent—is so repugnant to my common sense that I fail to attach any meaning to it. And yet I know that brilliant minds take such ideas seriously, which—at the end of immensely long chains of subtle thought and observation by immensely complex instruments—even have evidence in their favor.
Pace others, Seife makes no claim for Hawking as the world’s cleverest man.
I suspect that most people will read this book more for its gossip than its cosmology, however. The author has certainly refrained from doing a hatchet-job on Hawking, and he cannot be accused either of cheap sensationalism. He does not deny, for example, that Hawking was a first-rate physicist. Seife only maintains that Hawking was of a lower order of brilliance from other notable physicists of his time (he did not win the Nobel Prize). Pace others, Seife makes no claim for Hawking as the world’s cleverest man, a claim that in any case is without real meaning, given the large number of fields in which human intelligence can express itself. Hawking’s most notable work in cosmology, for example the discovery that black holes emit radiation, was over well before he was forty, which is often or usually the case with physicists even when not suffering from the handicaps that he suffered from. Quite a number of his ideas turned out to be mistaken, though he clung to them with more obstinacy than perhaps was wise, and by the time of his world fame he was no longer in the first rank of cosmologists. I am not in a position to say whether the author’s claims in respect to Hawking’s rank as a physicist are true or even defensible, but—for what it is worth—they ring true to me.
If, in fact, Hawking were neither the world’s greatest physicist nor the world’s cleverest man, it would be the reason for his enormous fame that would be in question. If one could identify beyond peradventure the world’s greatest physicist or cleverest man, would he necessarily enjoy the fame that Hawking enjoyed? I think not, for fame, above all in the modern world, is seldom accorded to people strictly on merit; indeed it is often achieved for quite extraneous reasons. The greatest baseball player may be more famous than the greatest cellist, but I would hesitate to say that he deserved his fame more, at least according to my scale of values.
Hawking, apparently, always liked coups de théâtre. At his first public appearance in a scientific forum, as a research student before he had finished his doctorate, he pointed out (correctly) certain mistakes in the calculations in a lecture by the then most famous cosmologist in the world, Fred Hoyle. Hawking was already suffering the effects of his disease, being by then unable to stand or walk without a stick. For a mere research student publicly to contradict a man of Hoyle’s scientific eminence took some courage (perhaps the fact that Hawking expected at the time to survive only a few years gave him that courage). Interestingly, Hawking made it look as if he had corrected Hoyle’s mathematics on the spot, thereby making himself appear even more brilliant than he was, but in fact he’d had a preview of what Hoyle was going to say.
He was not completely unknown to the wider public before his book A Brief History of Time was published in 1988, but it was then that the cosmologist, already past his peak scientifically, became stellar, so to speak, and remained so until his death.
If anybody could be accused of hawking Hawking, it was his publishers, though there is no evidence that Hawking ever objected to being so used—on the contrary. The publishers had the brilliant idea—brilliant, that is, from the point of view of salesmanship—of placing a picture of the author in his hi-tech wheelchair against a background of a starry sky. Here at a stroke was insinuated the astonishing disjunction between the physical and the mental Hawking: so confined physically that he had to be fed and even propped up, to say nothing of his other bodily functions, but his mind roamed the heavens freely as if light-years were but seconds—in other words, the triumph of mind and spirit over matter. No doubt the publishers felt instinctively that the public was thirsting for something like this, which proved an impressively correct hunch. The question then becomes why the public was thirsting for something like this.
Hawking was perfectly aware that his book, whose hardback edition remained on the best-seller lists for more than two years, was more bought than read and more read than understood. A copy on a coffee table, or at least prominently exposed to view, was a bit like a medal received for services to intellectual pretension. Books written about modern cosmology before his could sell quite well—after all, it is an interesting if difficult subject—but this was a phenomenon of a different order of magnitude. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it was the illness, the physical helplessness, and the wheelchair that did the trick.
Hawking, though he sometimes wrote of the mind of God, was a convinced atheist. Indeed, his first wife, who was a devout Anglican in the last days before that church itself disappeared down a theological black hole, claimed that his atheism was one of the reasons for their eventual estrangement and divorce. What his triumph over his physical condition represented to the public was the possibility of spirituality without religion. Here was mind and spirit dissociated from body, though not quite as dissociated as a brain in a bottle would have been. On the contrary, Hawking, besides being disembodied mind, was Christ-like in his bodily suffering, except that his calvary lasted longer than Christ’s: he survived it to fix his mind on higher, completely abstruse matters. Thereby Hawking offered us redemption and salvation from our earth-bound preoccupations and obsessions, the strength but triviality and unworthiness of which cause us feelings of guilt.
From the publicists’ point of view, Hawking was perfection itself. There was probably no more instantly recognizable person in the world than he. His picture was to physics what the Coca-Cola logo is to soft drinks.
There was one further advantage that Hawking had as a celebrity that I mention with trepidation. Human beings have always had a prurient taste for and interest in those among them who are physically very different from the great run of themselves (I avoid using the word that naturally comes to mind but which must be rigorously suppressed). It is this, surely, that gives the Paralympics their appeal and underlies any supposed theoretical justification for them. It would require the humane brush of a Daumier to do justice without cruelty to this aspect of the Hawking phenomenon.
But none of this can obscure or diminish the achievement, human and scientific, of Stephen Hawking. Seife’s book, whose title promises some kind of debunking, does not in the least detract from the scientist’s achievement, unless the delineation of faults and weaknesses detracts from the lives of us all. But it would have been better if this book had been written more straightforwardly, and perhaps in two parts, even two slim volumes: the life and the works.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 77
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