Farewell, Stephen Hawking
A mighty intellect searching the ends of the cosmos, trapped in a failing and unresponsive body. The poignancy of Stephen Hawking’s condition explains, as much as his contributions to physics, the fact that Hawking was the most iconic scientist on Earth. He died this week at age 76.
Most of us, if put in his position, God forbid, would find it difficult to go on. Maybe impossible. But his spirit was indomitable. For this alone, he was worthy of renown. Hawking, who theorized about black holes with his partner Roger Penrose, adapted, amazingly. Many people would not recognize Penrose in the street. But everyone knew Hawking.
A Best-Selling Author
His most famous book was A Brief History of Time (1988), a phenomenal bestseller. In the acknowledgments, he noted that writing it would not have been possible without specially programmed communication equipment. “With this system,” he cheerfully noted, “I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice.” Thus equipped, he pointed out with satisfaction, “I have sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex.” Now that is a first class attitude.
Carl Sagan wrote the original introduction to the book. He recalled catching sight of Hawking on a visit to London in 1974, when Sagan stumbled on a special conclave of scientists, the famed Royal Society. He witnessed something awesome:
I realized that I was watching an ancient ceremony: the investiture of new fellows into the Royal Society, one of the most ancient scholarly organizations on the planet. In the front row, a young man in a wheelchair was, very slowly, signing his name in a book that bore on its earliest pages the signature of Isaac Newton… Stephen Hawking was a legend even then.
Like Newton, Hawking was the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University. No position in science is more exalted. Yet he wrote for the most general reader. Looking again at his Brief History last night, I was struck by his easy and inviting voice. For any scientist to write that way, about the most challenging subjects, is unusual. You have to feel what your readers feel. I wondered if his own physical vulnerability had anything to do with this rare empathy.
He wanted to know, as we all do, “Where did we come from? And why is the universe the way it is?” He concluded the book with the observation that if and when science achieves a complete unified theory, a quantum theory of gravity, human beings would then “know the mind of God.”
A ‘God-Obsessed Atheist’
What he meant by that was not what most religious believers do. He was an atheist. But as a colleague who attended his lectures at Cambridge recalls, he was a “God-obsessed atheist.” Hawking was known to slip into churches, accompanied by the “entourage” that piloted him and his wheelchair. He wanted to hear the sermon. He left quickly afterward.
In his later years, he stepped outside of his specialty more and more, giving satisfaction to proponents of a number of dubious causes. Those include the New Atheists, various pessimists and misanthropes, enemies of the State of Israel, and others.
In 2010, he co-wrote a book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design. They insisted that “the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” a nonsensical claim later echoed by New Atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss. Oxford University mathematician John Lennox, an eloquent spokesman for Christian views, replied with a book of his own, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? Discovery Institute physicist Bruce Gordon responded as well:
Universes do not “spontaneously create” on the basis of abstract mathematical descriptions, nor does the fantasy of a limitless multiverse trump the explanatory power of transcendent intelligent design. What Mr. Hawking’s contrary assertions show is that mathematical savants can sometimes be metaphysical simpletons.
Indulging in philosophy, at which his efforts, as neuroscientist Michael Egnor put it, were “notoriously sophomoric, Hawking claimed a few years ago that “philosophy is dead.” It makes your head hurt.
A Victim of His Own Celebrity
Recently, there was the increasing sense that he was being exploited by the media for his brilliant reputation. And, let’s be honest, for his heart-tugging appearance in photographs. He called for “some form of world government” based on an argument from “Darwinian evolution.” He warned of “artificial intelligence, the ravages of climate change and the threat of nuclear terrorism.” He predicted that humanity must be prepared to find a home other than Earth in the coming millennium.
Hawking later whittled down this “sell by” date for getting off the planet to somewhere between 200 and 500 years. Hardly a month went by without breathless coverage of his latest gloomy pronouncement.
In the end, he seemed almost as much a victim of his own celebrity as he was of his motor neuron disease. With his death, all that is over. He cannot be exploited anymore or captured by the lures of trendy, shallow intellectual improvisation. It all burns away. And his actual achievements in science, and as a writer gifted to communicate science to his readers, are the noble remainder.
Farewell, Dr. Hawking.