Hawking at 70

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:

  1.  Albert Einstein
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. James Clerk Maxwell
  4. Niels Bohr
  5. Werner Heisenberg
  6. Galileo Galilei
  7. Richard Feynman
  8. Paul Dirac
  9. Erwin Schrödinger
  10. 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:

16 Responses to “Hawking at 70”

  1. CJR Clark Says:

    I can’t help but wonder how much of Hawking’s fame is due to the otherworldliness of his synthesised voice?

    Wonder what a weird voice might have done to boost the fame of Fritz Zwicky, king of the underrecognised physicists?

    Also, the unclosed parenthesis in your sixth paragraph is tormenting me.

  2. First iteration of “Galactic Mornington Crescent – A History of Mine” link for perusal. As a nod to SH “The game must be completed before everything is reduced to Hawking Radiation”

  3. I would include the Nobel laureate physicist, W. Pauli,
    in the list. Not only for the “exclusion principle” and
    other ideas, but for one that i’m personally involved with,,
    and that is the idea of “acausal connections” in the
    space-time continuum, otherwise known as the
    “synchronicity principle” per Carl Jung.


    In Deciphering the Cosmic Number I explore how Carl Jung analysed the dream imagery of one of his most famous patients, the ground-breaking physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli’s unconventional and wild life brought him to the brink of a mental
    breakdown. He obsessed over how he had made his greatest discovery, feeling that he had tapped into something beyond physics:

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Todd: That’s interesting. The correct interpretation of Bell’s theorerm is that the hidden variables, which scientists should suppose lie behind the failure of quantum theory to predict some things deterministically, are nonlocal and acausal. The wonder in that case is that the world is predictable at all. I strongly support attempts to seek such a hidden variables theory, because that is the way in which testable prediction might be improved – which in turn is the basic research process in physics. Conversely, any discussion that is not aimed at improving testable prediction, while perhaps interesting in its own right (eg, monist philosophy), is not physics.

      David Bohm accepted nonlocal/acausal HVs, but his consequent concept of the implicate order was not a step toward any testable theory.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Hawking is hardly responsible for the media focus on him, which fairly obviously is due to the extraordinary disparity between his physical and mental capabilities. For a while I said in private that I wished he would publicly deny that he was on a par with Einstein… then he did. My only difference from him is his use of the word ‘God’ as a metaphor for the laws of physics (those are my own words, but I believe they are accurate). This usage is as tedious for atheists as it is for theists, and Hawking would have done better to avoid the G-word altogether.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s a word that publishers like, however….

    • He has since said in no uncertain terms that he is an atheist, for what it’s worth. At best, his “mind of God” is similar to Einstein’s God who doesn’t play dice. Nothing more than a metaphor. Personally, I think it is confusing to use a loaded word as a metaphor. I don’t know how much publishers insist on this. Just yesterday I saw Ginger Baker on Jools Holland (a rerun from a while back) where right at the beginning he distanced himself from the title of his autobiography (“Hellraiser”), saying that it was solely due to the publisher. (Einstein, especially after the rise of the Nazis, did promote his own Jewishness, but not in a religious sense. There are actually several secular Jews, people who are atheists by any useful definition yet feel Jewish in some way.)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The position most consistent with Einstein’s various pronouncements is that he was a deist – someone who believed in a creator God who left his creation alone.

      Hawking had enough clout with publishers to not use the g-word if he was an atheist. Doing so alienated both atheists and theists, which is rather silly.

      Interesting that Ginger Baker always insisted that he was a jazz drummer, despite his fame with Cream.

  5. In today’s Sunday Times, it is stated that Hawking is ‘considered the greatest living scientist by his peers’. If ‘his peers’ includes scientists outside of cosmology, I don’t think the statement is true, despite Hawking’s great achievements. Sciece needs its icons, but there is no question journalists frequently confuse best-known with best

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Interesting that your (OK, I know you didn’t invent the list) top 10 are all dead. Given the growth in the world population and the increased chances for people to enter higher education, I think we can be 100% confident statistically that the all-time top 10 physicists in terms of intrinsic ability are all in fact alive today. But their achievements seem less because past generations picked all the lower-hanging fruit. This is not to say that it was at all easy to do so – but the next step is even harder for those who come later. If you want to be concerned that progress in physics is saturating, worry that someone as smart as, say, Ed Witten has yet to invent the Witten effect. Conversely, if medical technology could have allowed Hawking to have worked 100-200 years ago, he would quite plausibly have made an impact on the subject as large as the top-10 greats – but there are quite a number of other people of whom this is true.

    • telescoper Says:

      On the other hand, Coleslaw already exists…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It’s a case of massive technical competence, self-confidence, and looking in the right place. Re the last of these, anybody coming up with a theory that successfully predicts which of the UP or DOWN detectors will go off, the next time a silver atom passes through a Stern-Gerlach apparatus (beyond merely predicting the stats), is going to get the most important physics Nobel for 80 years. The relevant variables will be nonlocal and to some extent acausal, but that should be seen as a help not a hindrance, ie we know not to wastte time on theories that are local and causal.

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