We are barely three months in, and already 2018 shows ominous signs of being like 2016, in that it will be chiefly remembered for its haul of celebrity mortality.
This week brought the very sad news of the death of Stephen Hawking, for decades the single most famous scientist on the planet (even if, strictly speaking, he wasn’t so much a scientist as a theoretician, but media celebrity has never been much interested in such fine distinctions).
The news led in turn to a positively surreal exchange on the main Government radio station in my own country, Ireland. Some science bod from one of the Dublin colleges was on, ostensibly to provide an appreciation of Hawking’s life and achievements.
The guy declared that Hawking’s book had ‘changed my life,’ but then didn’t seem to be able to remember its name.
Sure that’s always happening to me. I’m always coming across books like that. It’s like meeting girls at parties. They change my life and then I can’t remember their names.
The science ‘expert’ then went on to give a very partial and incomplete definition of ‘Hawking Radiation,’ declared that a new telescope in the Irish Midlands will be ‘looking at things like Black Holes’ (Impossible: you can’t actually ‘see’ Black Holes, therefore you can’t ‘look at them’) and mentioned Hawking’s famous cameo in Star Trek, where he ‘played chess with Mister Spock.’
He didn’t. He played poker with Mr Data, Einstein and Issac Newton. Maybe such details don’t matter all that much in the grander scheme of cheap media airspace, but I wouldn’t be pinning my hopes on any theories this guy comes up with about the true nature of the Universe.
For those in my country, moments like this are a small but depressing reminder of how lives might end, great and ordinary women and men come and go, but Banana Republic codology remains immortal. Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.
But exchanges like this also, perhaps, illustrate the flip side of Hawking’s decision to embrace global celebrity in the way he did.
His book, by the way, was called ‘A Brief History of Time’ (there are others, but it’s the most famous one) and Hawking said he wrote it out of a desire to popularize interest in his field of science, to get people thinking about the Universe and its origins.
It’s also been suggested that he did so in order to help pay for the increasing cost of his care, to maintain both the growing entourage and increasingly sophisticated technology necessary to keep him alive and functional, and that is completely understandable.
It led to him becoming one of the most instantly recognisable people on the planet.
Anyone who hunted through the pages of ‘A Brief History’ hoping for, as one of Hawking’s publishers put it, ‘a key to the mystery of life’ was going to be disappointed. It topped the bestseller charts for years, and there was a long time when it was immensely trendy to pretend you could read it, but since there remain far more questions than answers in Cosmology and Physics, any hope of a Holy Grail was remote.
It’s a long time since I read it (I think I finished it) but I remember finding some of its arguments a bit reductive. I had no grasp whatever of the Physics, but Hawking struck me as a fairly conventional sceptical thinker in the English tradition. If there was the possibility of some remarkable revelation looming somewhere in the background, then he certainly wasn’t saying.
Instead, Hawking’s own remarkable struggle against debilitating illness became the thing which defined him. His was, in that sadly jaded cliche, a triumph of the human spirit, the ability to survive adversity if not defeat it, to make beautiful music out of a horrible fate.
Diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his early 20’s, he passed away 55 years after Doctors told him he had a couple of years at most.
In 1985, a serious bout of pneumonia which almost killed him took away his voice, and led ultimately to the instantly recognisable sound of his synthesised speech, that mechanised voice which somehow conveyed a strange, yet presumably accidental plaintiveness. There was something in the laboured sibilants, the truncated vowels, which spoke somehow, almost magically, of vulnerability.
The voice became an intrinsic part of Hawking the media phenomenon. Wherever he appeared, be it on The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory or the news, there was no mistaking whom that voice belonged to, even if it was not actually his.
It is perhaps unfortunate that his celebrity came to define him. It also ended his marriage. Hawking himself frankly acknowledged that his survival would have been impossible without the devoted care of Jane Wilde, the young woman he married before the full onset of his illness (and who appears, fascinatingly, to have been the spitting image of his mother).
After many years, Jane decided she could no longer cope with life as the consort of a global media phenomenon, and I wonder sometimes if Stephen Hawking ever fully dealt with it either. This is one of the many plaintive aspects of their story.
Leave aside the Cosmology for a moment, and Stephen and Jane appear to have simply been ordinary people, ill equipped for fame, for the endless demands of random others, attempting to make the very best they could out of a shocking fate.
His fame led many media airbags to refer to him casually as ‘the greatest scientist in the world.’ Was he? There are perhaps just a handful of people on the planet qualified to answer such a question.
So many of Hawking’s breakthroughs still belong to the realm of theory: ‘Hawking Radiation,’ for example, is the idea that, absolutely contrary to what Physics had thought for decades, Black Holes do actually radiate some energy back into space.
It was, apparently, a source of disappointment to him that Hawking Radiation had not been physically observed during his lifetime, but then, it would be incredibly difficult to spot. As with some of Einstein’s legacy, decades might pass before later scientists are able to proclaim ‘yes. He was right after all.’
I like the fact that he was a bit of a contrarian, someone who enjoyed going against the grain. Ever since I was a child, scientists had believed that the star Cygnus X-1 orbits the first experimentally observed Black Hole in the Universe. This is partly because it’s a strong source of X rays, and because the companion star seems to have been stretched into an egg like shape, presumably because of the enormous gravitational pull of the Black Hole.
Hawking apparently bet his colleague, Kip Thorne, that Cygnus X-1 would turn out to be something other than a Black Hole (observational data proved him wrong in 1990). He also wagered that the Higgs Boson particle would never be observed. Oh well, even Einstein blew some smoke in his time.
His sense of humour travelled light years in a world stuffed with inexplicable self-importance. He never seems to have taken himself too seriously. I love the fact that he was into Wagner. Indeed, I’m evolving a weird little theory of my own about the relationship between Wagner’s music and mental energy.
It’s unfortunate that something horrible has been going on in academia since the mid-point of his career, that intellectual adulteration of the kind typified by our friend at the start of this piece has become the depressing norm, that liberal arts faculties have been engulfed by a McCarthyite hysteria which has eradicated both debate and the spirit of honest inquiry.
It might have made some difference if the world’s most famous academic had spoken out about some of this, but then, perhaps it wouldn’t, and maybe it would have been asking a bit much of someone who already had plenty to deal with. Also, I suppose, was academia really all that healthy before the fanatics of perpetual victimhood came along?
As the biggest media science celebrity since Carl Sagan, Hawking inspired a lot of people to start thinking about science, and he encouraged many others to see disability as a challenge rather than a life sentence. For this alone, he has rendered a service which is incalculable, and his name deserves to shine with honour.
I’ll also confess to a personal stake, as someone dear to me beyond any words found Hawking an inspirational figure, and indeed recently completed a school project on him.
If she some day gravitates towards a career in science, and goes on to encounter exciting unknowns, then it will have had something fundamental to do with Stephen Hawking, and the same, no doubt, will be true of many who are children today.
May he be at peace!