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The Mysteries of Stephen Hawking’s Universe

Why did “A Brief History of Time” make its author the most famous scientist in the world?


The last time Stephen Hawking was ever uncertain about his fame was before a lecture in Cambridge, in the winter of 1988. Even then, really, he should have been in no doubt. In previous years, he’d been profiled by Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine, and the BBC had run shows about his work. Then, that past April, his book on cosmology, A Brief History of Time, had been published to instant and staggering success. Bookstores ran out. People wore T-shirts printed with the words STEPHEN HAWKING FAN CLUB. Still, as one of his students drove him to the lecture, Hawking was tetchy. “I’m worried that nobody will show up.”

Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity
by Charles Seife
Basic Books, 388 pp., $30.00

They reached the lecture hall. The student recalled to the journalist Charles Seife:

You roll from the back door into the guts of the building, which doesn’t have too many stairs, and we arrived in the room and it was packed. Packed with people. People sitting on the stairs, probably breaking all the rules for safety. And suddenly Stephen has this big grin—that smile. That tells you that even he didn’t expect to catch that fire.

This tale, told in Seife’s new book, Hawking Hawking, expresses several things at once. It visits Hawking just as he is transitioning into a rare planetary superstardom—one touched off by A Brief History of Time, which is now thought to have sold at least 10 million copies. It captures Hawking’s thirst for that kind of recognition—or, at the very least, his unalloyed delight at securing it. More than anything else, the story underscores the sheer improbability of this entire affair. People had poured into an auditorium to hear an immobile man with a computerized voice speak about bewildering theories in physics—a prospect so audacious and remote, at most other times, that Hawking himself was unprepared for it.

Then again, so much about Hawking was improbable. When he died in 2018, he was 76 years old—not a terribly old age, perhaps, but certainly one riper than anyone would have forecast for him half a century earlier, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In his brain and his spinal cord, his motor neurons slowly disintegrated, and the functions they controlled—walking, eating, standing, speaking, even breathing—fell away. In the public imagination, there is no union between man and machine as complete as that between Hawking and the wheelchair that kept him mobile. But he also had to be sustained by squads of unsung carers and nurses, as well as two wives who found they’d smothered their own identities to mother him.

In spite of these constraints, Hawking developed some of the most original cosmological ideas of the twentieth century. For the nonspecialist, much of the work in cutting-edge physics can seem doubly impenetrable, both because it is girded by equations and because its significance is not immediately evident. (Consider objective-collapse theory, in which all the probabilistic lives of a particle coalesce into a single wave function, a single reality, even if no one is observing it—a detour around a key tenet of quantum mechanics.) The fine grain of Hawking’s work—on black holes, the origins of the universe, and the character of time—was also necessarily mathematical and dense. But in its broadest articulations, it could feel so profound and fundamental even to the laity that it often impinged on matters of theology.

In Hawking Hawking, Seife provides a lively survey of Hawking’s career, although somewhat perplexingly he unrolls his story backward—death to life, nuts to soup. His purpose is not to reveal Stephen Hawking the human being: Hawking’s other biographers—including his first wife, Jane Wilde; the writers John Gribbin and Kitty Ferguson; and the scientist Leonard Mlodinow—have done that with varying degrees of success, although Seife builds that portrait out with fresh interviews and research. But he’s really in pursuit of a more intriguing quarry: Hawking’s relationship with his public, and the source of his celebrity. “Like Newton and Einstein, Hawking was the shining star of physics, obscuring all others by his sheer brilliance,” Seife writes, and he stresses repeatedly that people perceived Hawking to be Einstein’s natural heir. But they were wrong, Seife argues: Hawking was not the world’s smartest person or even the best mind in physics in his time, and he won his renown because he sought it and stage-managed it. And Seife raises two vital questions. What is the nature of scientific fame? And why did Hawking, in particular, succeed in achieving it?

When Hawking was, by his own admission, an apathetic undergraduate at Oxford, cosmology was a drowsy discipline. The revolution in the physics of very big things—stars, galaxies, the key actors of the skies—had stalled with Einstein, after his theories of relativity and gravity replaced the classical Newtonian model. Einstein had proposed that space and time jointly form the fabric of the universe, and that giant agglomerations of matter warp this fabric to produce unusual consequences: the effects of gravity, the bending of light, even the slowing of time. But, confusingly, the physics of very big things seemed to be utterly unconnected to the physics of very small things: subatomic particles, which behaved according to the random, probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics. And while quantum physicists could devise experiments and observe the shadowy presences of their particles, cosmologists had few ways to test their ideas empirically—to, for instance, peer back into the origin of the universe to see Einsteinian effects at play. “This field is not an active one,” Richard Feynman wrote to his wife, after attending a conference on gravity in Warsaw in 1962. “There are hosts of dopes here and it is not good for my blood pressure: such inane things are said and seriously discussed that I get into arguments.”

After learning the diagnosis of his disease in 1963, Hawking found a fresh zeal for work. (At Oxford, he wrote in his astonishingly dull memoir, My Brief History, “we affected an air of complete boredom and the feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for. One result of my illness has been to change all that.”) He joined Cambridge as a doctoral student not long before another physicist, Roger Penrose, suggested that large, dead stars eventually collapse to a singularity—a tiny nub of limitless density and immense gravitational power. In his thesis, Hawking transplanted Penrose’s methods into the primal singularity: all the matter of the universe, squeezed into the seed of its origin. And he showed that Einstein’s equations predict just such a singularity, a point of infinitude that expanded during the Big Bang. He then turned his attention to those dead, collapsed stars—black holes—and theorized that the horizon of their gravitational influence could never shrink. Either they’d swallow more matter, which expanded their horizon, or they’d stay the same. This “area theorem” unlocked an aspect of their behavior, helping scientists understand the energies unleashed during spectacular black-hole events. In 2015, an observatory detected gravitational waves from a merger of two black holes—exactly the kind of episode, Seife points out, that Hawking’s theory explains so well.

The Big Bang and black holes both command such mammoth quantities of mass and energy that they’re fiercely relativistic phenomena, so in puzzling them out Hawking helped revitalize Einsteinian cosmology. But his work offered an additional promise. From the world of particle physics, he borrowed one of Feynman’s techniques, which sums up all the probable paths of a particle, and applied it to the Big Bang universe to model all its potential evolutions. And he relied on particle physics again when he argued that black holes leak tiny, foaming bits of matter and energy at their gravitational horizon—trickles of Hawking radiation. (In this way, black holes slowly evaporate and eventually blow up, a fact that forced a recalibration of Hawking’s original area theorem.) By pulling together relativity and quantum mechanics, Hawking kindled a vision of a grand, unified theory—the perennial, perennially elusive quest of physics—waiting just offstage. The end of physics, he said in a lecture in 1980, might arrive “by the end of the century.”

Hawking’s audiences may not have mastered every nuance of his work, but they were living through a spell of high delight with astronomy; through the 1970s and 1980s, it would have been difficult to resist him. Humans were on the moon, and Cosmos was on television. Instruments and telescopes had progressed so that cosmologists could make empirical observations about the skies. The skies gave willingly: the signature of microwave background radiation, left over from the Big Bang; Cygnus X-1, the first discovered black hole; the existence of exoplanets. In other streams of physics, things were becoming more abstruse, more microscopic. The physicist Michael Green wrote, in a 1986 article in Scientific American, that theorists like himself, struck by the thought that all particles are made up of infinitesimal “strings” vibrating in multiple dimensions, were sweating over the fiendish math of the details. “We are still groping for a unifying insight into the logic of the theory.” In contrast, Hawking dealt with the broadest possible picture—with ideas that were, quite literally, of cosmic significance. It was easier for a gas station attendant to visualize a black hole than an abstract, multidimensional string. “Do you know Professor Hawking?” one such attendant actually inquired of a scientist who was passing through. “He’s my hero.”

Seife is a clear interpreter of Hawking’s physics, but he is also determined to be a cool judge of Hawking’s career. Some of his discoveries are new and disconcerting. He writes, for instance, that in 1999 Hawking scuttled a student’s entry into a Ph.D. program because his research directly contradicted one of Hawking’s own theories. Penrose, who won the physics Nobel last year, also reveals that Hawking’s epiphany around his “area theorem” was really mostly Penrose’s own. (“I never wanted to bring it up. Because it was a big thing for him,” Penrose says.) Some of Seife’s other criticisms—designed to shake the myth of Hawking’s all-surpassing brilliance—might baffle the professional scientist. He notes that some of Hawking’s ideas were wrong, and that he came upon a proof for Hawking radiation only while trying to demolish another physicist’s preliminary work in that direction—except that both mistakes and bloody-mindedness are essential to scientific advance. At some point, Seife writes, Hawking stopped being “a trendsetter,” and he received only one vote in a Physics World poll of the greatest physicists ever. (Einstein topped, with 119.) These metrics signify little in the context of scientific research; they’re merely imports from the kind of media coverage of Hawking that Seife insists is meaningless, the kind that crowned Hawking as the world’s most brilliant man.

It isn’t that Seife thinks there were other candidates who deserved to be exalted more—or if he does, he doesn’t mention them. His project is to appraise the gap between Hawking’s private personality and his public persona, to show how—unsurprisingly, as with any darling of the press—the persona towered over and obscured the personality, and to reveal Hawking to be the deliberate architect of that persona. Hawking’s detractors were most peeved by his courting of the public—by his readiness to oversimplify serious physics, or to expound on unfamiliar subjects like biological weapons and philosophy, or to slum it on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. He couldn’t have been blamed, however, for yellow journalism’s preoccupation with him—the type that resulted, for instance, in headlines like “GENIUS WEDS NURSE” and “EINSTEIN WEDDING BOYCOTT” when Hawking’s children from his first wife didn’t attend his second wedding.

Scientists believe that a wider prominence ought to be earned the same way that tenure or a Nobel is: with mountains of original, frequently cited work, and nothing else. This feels like a misunderstanding of why people look to scientists like Hawking, though. They want not just a glimpse of the most arresting mysteries of our universe but also a sense of our species’ progress in unraveling them. And to be reassured about the capacity of human thinking requires a relationship with the human doing the thinking. One of Hawking’s bluntest critics came to this recognition unwittingly. “He’s working on the same things that everybody else is,” this unnamed physicist once told the writer John Boslough. “He just received a lot of attention because of his condition.”

Hawking was fortunate that, well before his diagnosis, he’d chosen to pursue cosmology, a field that yielded to intuition and absolute thought. He didn’t need experiments, and after he stopped being able to do equations on paper, he could still design and test grand theories in his head. “I’d rather be right than rigorous,” he’d say. Any physicist or mathematician with a pure, instinctive feel for their discipline becomes, to the rest of us, a deeply romantic figure, as if they’d tapped into some secret vein of cosmic truth. Hawking was doubly so: a physicist whose gift was housed in a wrecked anatomy. He was all mind.

But his illness also explains why Hawking thrust himself beyond physics and academia. The expenses of being a scientist with ALS ran to round-the-clock nursing, assistants, hospital emergencies, specialized equipment, and complicated travel arrangements. When Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time, he bypassed the university presses so that he could earn a fatter advance; the higher his profile rose, the more financial support he found from foundations, millionaires, and universities. Everyone had an opinion on how much of the book its purchasers had actually consumed and understood. Hawking benefited, the writer Simon Jenkins wrote in The Times of London, “from ‘wisdom by association.’ Buying a book is a step more virtuous than merely reading a review of it, but need not involve reading it.” But Gribbin’s biography of Hawking also describes the exasperation of readers with such intellectual snobbery, and the book’s capacity to spark the lay imagination.

A Brief History of Time won Hawking his financial security; the celebrity was a secondary effect. Certainly he reveled in his reputation, which offered a measure of immortality to an all-too-mortal body. And certainly he was passionate about relaying his science into the popular realm, hoping, as he wrote in A Brief History of Time, that one day “we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.” But he may never have committed himself so thoroughly to a public life had it not been for the need to sustain his physiological life. One journalist scolded Bantam Books, the publisher of A Brief History of Time, for exploiting Hawking’s affliction by placing a photo of him in his wheelchair on the book’s cover. Hawking was displeased with the photo, and he wanted always to be known for his physics. But as the agent of his own fame, he recognized, pragmatically rather than cynically, that he could keep at his physics only if he shared himself with the public.

Everything, then, seems to fall short of some presumed ideal: Hawking’s material motivations for finding an audience, the fullness of his readers’ understanding of his work, the tabloids’ sordid fascination with Hawking, the uncerebral tenor of his fame. But all of this amply reflects the nature of science itself. The ideal never exists. Science is a human activity, beset like all other human activities by emotion, money, politics, strife—and, sometimes, devastating disease. Hawking’s life was a reminder that we’re all imperfect beings trying to understand a perfect universe.