Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

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 and cosmology, the fact that Hawking was until his death this morning the most iconic scientist on Earth.

Most of us, if put in his position, God forbid, would find it difficult or impossible to go on. But his spirit was indomitable, and 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.

In the acknowledgments section of his most famous book, A Brief History of Time (1988), a phenomenal bestseller, 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, writing the original introduction to the book, recalled catching sight of Hawking on a visit to London in 1974. At a conference, he stumbled on a meeting of scientists and 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, he was the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University.

Our own encounters with Hawking were only glancing. Stephen Meyer attended lectures by him at Cambridge in 1987 and 1988. When his 2001 book, The Universe in a Nutshell, came out, Hawking, ringed by disciples, visited Seattle and spoke at an event co-sponsored by Discovery Institute. There was a dinner at the Space Needle followed by a talk at the Seattle Opera House. Steve Buri recalls a blurry photo of his younger self with Hawking taken on the occasion, but cannot locate it now.

He wanted to know, as we all do, “Where did we come from? And why is the universe the way it is?” He concluded his Brief History 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.” What he meant by that, of course, was not what most religious believers do.

In his later years, he stepped outside of his specialty more and more, and gave satisfaction to proponents of a number of dubious causes — including the New Atheists, various pessimists and misanthropes, critics of the State of Israel, and others.

He co-wrote a book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, insisting 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 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.”

Indulging in philosophy, at which his efforts, as our colleague Michael Egnor put it, were “notoriously sophomoric,” Hawking claimed a few years ago that “philosophy is dead.” It makes your head hurt.

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” and predicted that humanity must be prepared to find a home other than Earth in the coming millennium or so.

He subsequently 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 lugubrious statement along these lines.

In the end, Hawking 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.

Photo credit: Lwp Kommunikáció, via Flickr.