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The mind of God? The problem with deifying Stephen Hawking

A new biography argues the iconic physicist was shamelessly self-promoting and his reputation overrated
March 1, 2021

In one of his 2016 Reith Lectures, Stephen Hawking said an odd thing. “People have searched for mini black holes… but have so far not found any,” he intoned with his trademark voice synthesiser. “This is a pity, because if they had I would have got a Nobel Prize.” The audience at the Royal Institution in London (which included me) laughed. But I was struck by how unusual it was for a scientist to state publicly that their work warranted a Nobel. It was no passing comment. A few minutes later, Hawking described how mini black holes—the signature of which he predicted in the early 1970s—might yet be seen in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva. “So I might get a Nobel Prize after all,” he added, to more laughter.

Most doubtless saw this as an example of Hawking’s famous wit. But in truth it gives a clue to the physicist’s elusive character: shamelessly self-promoting to the point of arrogance, and heedless of what others might think.

Veteran science writer Charles Seife’s warts-and-all biography doesn’t hold back from exploring Hawking’s less appealing sides. This is long overdue—not so much because Hawking needs cutting down to size, but because he needs to be rehumanised. There was inevitable public fascination with the great man trapped in the wheelchair—increasingly paralysed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or motor neurone disease) since early adulthood—even as his mind soared across time and space. The physicist’s remarkable tenacity, as well as his unquestioned scientific eminence, were part of the draw. But Hawking was revered as an almost superhuman intelligence. Amid that mythmaking are some disturbing messages for our attitudes both to science and to disability, as Hawking was stripped of his personhood and turned into an icon. 

The arc of his life lends itself to legend. A wunderkind at Oxford, he had just begun his seminal work on gravitational theory when his increasing clumsiness led, in 1963, to a diagnosis of ALS. Given only a few years to live, he continued to work from a wheelchair with the help of brilliant assistants who could understand his increasingly slurred speech. A life-saving tracheostomy in 1985 left him unable to speak; by the end, he could only activate his voice synthesiser by twitching the muscles of his cheek. His student Andrew Strominger attested that whereas 20 years before his death his speaking rate was measured in words per minute, “then it went to minutes per word, and then, you know, it just got slower and slower until it just sort of stopped.”

In the first two decades of his career, Hawking produced remarkable work on “singularities”—when matter collapses under its own gravity to (as Einstein’s general relativity insists) an infinitely dense point. This is what is believed to happen when massive stars burn out and become black holes. But Hawking, working with Roger Penrose (who actually did win the Nobel last year), also showed how the mathematics of collapse could (in reverse) describe the expansion of the universe in the Big Bang. 

From the end of the 1960s until the late 1970s, Hawking was at the forefront of a wider resurgent interest in general relativity. His greatest triumph came in 1974, when he showed that black holes are not wholly black. He predicted that they emit radiation from just outside the “event horizon”—the boundary in space beyond which their gravity is too strong even for light to escape. As a result, he postulated, black holes slowly shed their energy and “evaporate”: they are not the eternal objects originally thought.

This insight came from a rough-and-ready union of general relativity with quantum mechanics. It was a link between the physics of the immensely large and the vanishingly small. But the finite lifetime of black holes created a paradox. Once anything falls into a black hole, general relativity says the “information” it embodies in the arrangement of its atoms (think, say, of an infalling hard drive) is lost to the universe. But if black holes evaporate, what becomes of that information? Quantum mechanics insists that it is never wholly lost, although it can be dispersed beyond recovery. Hawking believed for a long time that black holes obliterate the information forever. But it is now generally believed, thanks in large part to Hawking’s student Don Page, that it can eventually be recovered. Hawking’s work on this “information paradox” created a fertile nexus of relativity, quantum theory, thermodynamics and information theory that is still yielding new ideas.

Seife’s quirky biographical gambit is to run the chronology in reverse, starting with Hawking’s death and ending with his birth. This works better than you might expect (though not perfectly) and creates a certain poignancy as the life unscrolls from the compromised celebrity of its final years to the intellectual exuberance and physical liberation of Hawking’s youth. 

© Tom Pilston/The Independent/Shutterstock © Tom Pilston/The Independent/Shutterstock

© Tom Pilston/The Independent/Shutterstock

Ironically, the bestselling “historian” of time seems stuck in the past, known throughout his life to put up posters of Marilyn Monroe in his office, visit “gentlemen’s clubs” and claim that women were “a mystery.” His 2013 autobiography My Brief History was unrevealing; Nature’s reviewer compared it to something “issued by the public relations department of an institution.” When theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind, one of Hawking’s sparring partners, says that “none of us were ever really able to know him,” that’s not solely because Hawking’s illness trammelled his communications. Beneath the mixture of gauche jokiness and arrogance seems to have been an almost wilful lack of self-knowledge. He had no more time for self-pity than for self-doubt; a little more of both would have given his human relationships greater depth.

Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time secured his celebrity. That it famously went unread, or unfinished, by many of its purchasers would for any other science communicator be a sign of failure. The book was like a Latin liturgy, filled with terms like the readership only half-understood. It played into the unhelpful notion that science is really hard and only for super-humans like him. As Seife shows, it only became even remotely readable through the intense effort of assistants and science writers enlisted by the publisher to translate Hawking’s dense and plodding prose. (Seife explains these ideas more clearly than Hawking ever did.)

What Hawking’s book did offer was a highly marketable grandiosity, summed up in its most famous line: “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” It established Hawking’s image of an amazing mind in a failed body. Hereafter it was not enough to regard Hawking (accurately) as one of the top 100 theoretical physicists in the world; he had to be—“in spite of it all”—a second Newton or Einstein. It was an almost Faustian bargain: Hawking wanted to be celebrated for his mind alone but craved fame too avidly to refuse the more compromised form of it that was on offer. To duck the truth about how much his celebrity depended on his disability colludes with society’s continuing discomfort about the whole issue.

Granting him guru status was not healthy. What Hawking had to say about artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life or space travel was often banal—but to say as much was taboo, as I discovered when I reviewed his final collection of essays Brief Answers to the Big Questions. Even astronomer Martin Rees, an enduring friend of Hawking, admitted that a “downside of his iconic status was that his comments attracted exaggerated attention even on topics where he had no special expertise.”

So when he pronounced in his 2010 book The Grand Design (with co-author Leonard Mlodinow) that “philosophy is dead,” philosophers felt compelled to mount detailed rebuttals of that trite act of provocation. (Mlodinow has said he suggested a more judicious wording, but Hawking was more interested in making a splash.) The picture that emerges from Hawking Hawking is of a man with a very narrow intellectual focus even before his illness restricted him. He was casually sloppy about other disciplines (his first wife Jane testified that “his contempt for medieval studies”—her own field—“was unrelenting”) and dismissive of philosophy, theology, or indeed any way to see the world except through science. He did not even seem to take much interest in physics outside his own corner of it.

“To judge Hawking is to do as we would with any other public figure. It is to grant him his humanity”

Hawking did not really produce any important scientific work after A Brief History; a decade later he was left behind by a new generation of theoretical physicists. Towards the end of his career, he would float half-baked but attention-grabbing ideas. In 2004, he announced that he’d “solved a major problem in theoretical physics”—the black hole information paradox. But all he’d done was to finally convince himself of what many others already believed: that he’d been wrong to think information was erased by black holes. 

Hawking adopted the habit of very publicly placing financial bets on scientific debates, knowing that this would create a news hook whatever the outcome. When, in 2012, he bet against the discovery of the Higgs particle at the LHC, it wasn’t because of any strong theoretical argument but because it inserted him into a story in which he’d played no part. Sure enough, the Daily Telegraph ran the headline: “Higgs Boson: Prof Stephen Hawking Loses $100 Bet.” Peter Higgs, the media-shy physicist who had (with others) suggested the particle’s existence decades earlier, wasn’t amused. Hawking’s “celebrity status,” he said, meant he “got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not.” Hawking muscled in on the act too when gravitational waves were detected in late 2015, saying that the detections “agree with predictions that I and other scientists have made about black holes.” Maybe—but it was mostly (as the Nobel citation the following year showed) the “other scientists.”

Hawking became “as much a brand as he was a person,” says Seife. Billionaire entrepreneurs traded on his name, from Yuri Milner to Richard Branson and Jeffrey Epstein (whose vanity conference on gravity in the Virgin Islands the physicist attended in 2006). In exchange, Hawking was taken on zero-gravity flights and invited to glitzy events and launches. This hawking of Hawking continues today: for a mere £19,000 you can buy a gold watch inlaid, like some medieval jewel-encrusted reliquary bearing a shard of Christ’s cross, with wooden disks “taken from the desk at which Hawking contemplated the mysteries of the universe.”

There has been a reluctance to consider how ungenerously Hawking sometimes treated others. “He almost never gives credit to any of his collaborators when he’s interviewed,” says Strominger, who accepted his own sidelining because if you were a co-author on a Hawking paper, you would suddenly “get ten thousand times as much attention” as before. Former student Marika Taylor was less forgiving, saying of her most famous paper with Hawking that “he should have let me publish it as a single author, because the main results were mine.” 

Hawking was particularly unkind to Jacob Bekenstein, who realised as a PhD student that a black hole could have a temperature and an entropy. As the idea seemed at first to conflict with his own ideas, Hawking criticised the young researcher mercilessly and encouraged others to do so—before realising Bekenstein was right, and coming up with what is now known as the Bekenstein-Hawking relation. When the work of one of Hawking’s own students at Cambridge suggested he was wrong about black-hole information, he tried to get the graduate kicked off his PhD. And he very publicly implied, without justification, that physicist Paul Steinhardt and his PhD student Andreas Albrecht had stolen an idea in cosmology from Hawking’s friend Andrei Linde—a potentially career-ending accusation.

Time and again Seife reveals Hawking to have been searching for any validation of his ideas rather than regarding them as hypotheses to be tested. Often he would only accept his intuitions were wrong when he had personally re-derived the results of someone else’s critique (and could thereby claim some credit for it). Scientists need some stubbornness, conviction and competitiveness; but too much of these attributes can hinder their science, as well as compromise the person. 

To admit all this is not to deny he was a great physicist (he might have even got his Nobel had he not died in 2018), nor that he could also be kind, companionable and fun. Rather, it is to judge him as we would any other public figure. It is to grant him his humanity. What we did instead was an all too familiar response to disability. We created a kind of “compensation cure,” much as the struggles of people with autism are obscured by the stereotype of the savant. Hawking’s life is worth celebrating, but if we make it a myth then it becomes just a story onto which we can project our anxieties and fantasies. He deserved better.

Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity by Charles Seife (Basic Books, $30)

This article has been changed to clarify that Hawking did not predict mini black holes but only the means of their possible detection