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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

By Philip Ball   April 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…

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