Today is the 70th Birthday of renowned British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. His immense contributions to physics, including but not restricted to cosmology, are remarkable in their own right, but made even more emarkable that has done so much after having been stricken by such a debilitating disease when he was only in his twenties. Hawking’s is undoubtedly a brilliant and inspirational mind, but his courage and physical endurance in the face of difficulties that others might have found unbearable provide inspiration far behond physics. I’d therefore like to add a genuine Many Happy Returns to Professor Stephen Hawking, and I hope he’s enjoying the celebratory conference and other events that have been laid on to mark this special occasion.
I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the “cult” that surrounds Stephen Hawking. I think a number of my colleagues find things I have said disrespectful and/or churlish. I do, however, stand by everything I’ve said. I do have enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and fortitude, and have never said otherwise. I don’t, however, agree that Hawking is in the same category of revolutionary thinkers as Newton or Einstein, which is how he is often portrayed.
In fact a poll of 100 theoretical physicists in 1999 came to exactly the same conclusion. The top ten in that list were:
- Albert Einstein
- Isaac Newton
- James Clerk Maxwell
- Niels Bohr
- Werner Heisenberg
- Galileo Galilei
- Richard Feynman
- Paul Dirac
- Erwin Schrödinger
- Ernest Rutherford
The idea of a league table like this is of course a bit silly, but it does at least give some insight into the way physicists regard prominent figures in their subject. Hawking came way down the list, in fact, in 300th (equal) place. I don’t think it is disrespectful to Hawking to point this out. I’m not saying he isn’t a brilliant physicist. I’m just saying that there are a great many other brilliant physicists that no one outside physics has ever heard of.
It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the list had been restricted to living physicists. I’d guess Hawking would be in the top ten, but I’m not at all sure where…
And before I get accused of jealousy about Stephen Hawking’s fame, let me make it absolutely clear that if Hawking is like a top Premiership footballer (which I think is an appropriate analogy), then I am definitely like someone kicking a ball around for a pub team on a Sunday morning (with a hangover). This gulf does not make me envious; it just makes me admire his ability all the more, just as trying to play football makes one realise exactly how good the top players really are.
Anyway, I had better wind this up because that sporting metaphor has just reminded me that there are some FA Cup ties on the TV this afternoon. I’ll therefore switch to a slightly different kind of hawking, i.e. trying to peddle a few copies of my book Hawking and the Mind of God, which was published in 2000. Excuse the blatant self-promotion, but these are hard times!
Here is the jacket blurb:
Stephen Hawking has achieved a unique position in contemporary culture, combining eminence in the rarefied world of theoretical physics with the popular fame usually reserved for film stars and rock musicians. Yet Hawking’s technical work is so challenging, both in its conceptual scope and in its mathematical detail, that proper understanding of its significance lies beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists. How, then, did Hawking-the-scientist become Hawking-the-icon? Hawking’s theories often take him into the intellectual territory that has traditionally been the province of religion rather than science. He acknowledges this explicitly in the closing sentence of his bestseller, “A Brief History of Time”, where he says that his ultimate aim is the “know the Mind of God”. “Hawking and the Mind of God” examines the pseudo-religious connotations of some of the key themes in Hawking’s work, and how these shed light not only on the Hawking cult itself, but also on the wider issue of how scientists represent themselves in the media.
And you can take a peek at the inside here: