Stephen Hawking: A Legacy
While the world is mourning the death and eulogising the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking (and why not, the passing of anyone is a sad moment for those close to them) we at BTM, who are nothing if not contrary, will be taking a Brief Look at the Life and Legacy of Stephen Hawking and ask the question – if it were not for his tragic illness, and multiple appearances on mainstream media would we even be talking about him? I’ll set my stall out right at the beginning here – I have an almost visceral reaction to over-hyped celebrity smart alecs. Maybe it’s borderline jealousy, touched with a liberal helping of Scottish, working class cynicism. Who knows? I guess I was just pretty antipathetic to start with – as a young physicist in the late 1970’s I was aware of him and his work but, despite almost embarking on a career in theoretical physics, it always seemed a bit esoteric and otherworldly, all that stuff about black holes, white holes and so on. Interesting, but wasn’t exactly going to get me a proper job and feed my family. Fast forward several decades and I started reading the biography by his first wife Jane and it opened my eyes to a world of casual privilege, over-confidence and general arrogance as well as mis-treatment bordering on misogyny. I particularly disliked the elitist world that he inhabited as a teenager – all that nonsense about Brahms being a bit mediocre and not able to orchestrate properly. I mean really, such an over-inflated sense of his own importance, but you can put that down to the arrogance and immaturity of youth. Much, much worse was how he treated his first wife, Jane, and the general lack of respect he had for her (and for many of his professional colleagues). I have it on very good authority that, when asking for a reference from a distinguished professor that he (Hawking) just assumed that the man in question would know who he was and give him a glowing reference. Much has been written about the early marriage elsewhere so I leave it as an exercise for the reader to go find out and make your own mind up. And don't even get me started on that awful bio-pic film, the very thought of pouty Redmayne and his puffy lips swanning around 1960’s Cambridge made me come out in hives. Don’t, please don’t, take that as a representative view of academia in the 1960’s and 70’s. I suppose, we need a bit of contextual background. What exactly was his field of study and why was it important? 1 Hawking Radiation Undoubtedly his greatest contribution – this stemmed from his early work looking at the properties of expanding universes, started in the mid 1960’s during his time at Cambridge. It must be remembered that, at the time, the jury was still out on things we take for granted today. In essence, this suggested that far from eating everything in their path, like some giant cosmic Godzilla, black holes could actually emit radiation. Be studying this radiation, we can find evidence of their existence (tricky little buggers to see generally, as the name suggests) and figure out stuff about their properties. It was explained to me like this – as matter is attracted towards the black hole under the enormous gravitational forces, strange quantum effects mean that particles created near the event horizon can, under certain circumstances not be re-absorbed but escape into free space. To an outside observer, it looks like the black hole is radiating. Frankly, this is some weird shit, if you’ll pardon my French. 2 Big Bang In the mid 1960’s the Big Bang in particular was not the prevailing paradigm – Fred Hoyle’s steady state theory was popular and opinion was divided on the evidence for, indeed need for, an expansionist view of the early universe. It was scientists such as Hawking who undertook the difficult task of doing the calculations to try and describe the first few seconds of the early universe and he should be commended for that. 3 Cosmology Hawking was undoubtedly a gifted physicist and a deep, original thinker about many things. But so were many of his contemporaries. Roger Penrose to name but one. The holy grail, of course, is the grand unification theory – one theory to rule them all and in the darkness bind them as it were. That stuff about the mind of God really annoyed me, especially coming from an avowed atheist. The absence of a Nobel Prize award is probably irrelevant, but it can be seen as a bellwether for acknowledging genuine contributions to scientific knowledge and discovery, and as such the lack of recognition by Sweden’s finest is telling. Hawking’s ideas on black holes, radiation are elegant and powerful but without experimental verification remain neat theories that help explain some aspects of the universe, at least until something better comes along. Just look at the fuss around string theory over the past few decades, but at the moment it remains nothing more than a fancy pants mathematical framework with no experimental evidence to suggest it is remotely close to a description of reality. But I digress. So, we’ve seen that a lack of experimental evidence is one possible reason for the missing Nobel, does that mean that the whole “big bang” thing is just a “theory” and so not based on any reality at all? Far from it – this is not the time to pontificate on the nature of scientific theory or the competing philosophies of logical positivists and empirical falsification. The evidence of the big bang is measurable in the cosmic microwave background (for which a Nobel prize was awarded). The COBE experiments have shown an overall anisotropy in the universe (Nobel prize there too) consistent with such and event and the secondary school physics you learned about the Doppler effect can be applied to the movement of galaxies and clusters of galaxies to show that everything is racing away from everything else. Really quickly. In fact, the further they are way, the quicker they are going. I doubt whether more than a few people will remember Hawking Radiation as the key contribution he made – it’s more likely, especially in the age of soundbites and internet memes, that he will be remembered as the smartest guy ever to appear on The Simpsons. For me, that’s not the worst thing in the world. More recently, he got involved in a judicial review of the NHS and joined a campaign group to take on Jeremy Hunt https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/08/stephen-hawking-lawsuit-foiling-jeremy-hunt-nhs-shake-up Which, in my book, pretty much makes up for everything else he’s done previously. He used his illness as a platform to raise awareness about issues and his celebrity status meant he got the ear of the great and the good (and the not so good). A bit like Bono, only in a much cooler way. In his later years, as a champion of various causes from the environment to the NHS he stood out as a beacon of sanity in a world dominated by fake news, flat earthers and creationists and for that, if nothing else, he should be remembered. Maybe, in the final reckoning it won't be his work on singularities, the topology of space-time or the thermodynamics of black holes that is his legacy but historians will trace The Rise of the Nerd back to his pioneering work on popularising science and making scientists appear cool, or coolish. I’ll leave you to decide if that is a good or bad thing.
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