Field of Science

Book review: Charles Seife’s “Hawking Hawking”

I still remember the first time I encountered “A Brief History of Time”. I must have been in high school. I marveled at the elfin-looking bespectacled man on the cover who looked like an alien. And were the contents the very definition of exotic or what. Clearly I understood very little of what was written about black holes, the Big Bang and quantum theory, but the book definitely got me hooked on to both cosmology and Stephen Hawking and cemented the image of the scientist in my mind as some kind of otherworldly alien superintelligence.

Now I just finished Charles Seife’s unique, must-read contribution to Hawking biography, “Hawking Hawking” and realize that in fact that was the intended effect.  Seife’s book does a first-rate job of stripping the myth-making, hype and self-promotion from the celebrity and revealing the man inside in all his triumph and folly. The achievement is all the more remarkable since Seife did not have access to Hawking’s personal papers and family members, resources which the foundation set up after his death guards carefully in order to preserve the image.

The book recounts several episodes of Hawking being very human; of opposing scientists who did not agree with his ideas and trying to hobble their professional advancement, of playing favorites and denying credit to others, of neglecting and mocking his wife and her work in the humanities, of making pronouncements especially in his last years about topics that were far beyond his expertise and which the media and the public held up as sacrosanct - an image that he not only didn’t do much to dispel but often encouraged. Of course, all scientists can occasionally be cruel, vain, jealous and egotistical, but these qualities of Hawking were hidden behind a blitz of media publicity.

And yet the book is not a takedown in any way. It acknowledges Hawking’s brilliant and important contributions to science, especially his key discovery of Hawking radiation that married general relativity and quantum theory in a tour de force of calculation. Seife sensitively describes how much Hawking struggled because of his terrible diseases, and how ambivalent he was about the media and public highlighting his disability. Much of the public never understood how hard even doing calculations was for him, even aided by his powerful memory and remarkable imagination. It’s not surprising that a lot of his best work was done with collaborators, brilliant scientists in their own right whose names the public never remembered.

Ultimately, although Hawking seems to have contributed to a good deal of self-promotion and myth-making himself, he seems to have been much more in touch with the inner human being than what he let on. In distinguishing what was real from what was hype, Seife gives Hawking his rightful place in science, not as another Newton or Einstein but as Stephen Hawking.

Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity

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