Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking

So Stephen Hawking has died. My poorly organized or scattered initial thoughts:

  1. Hawking lived far longer than most people with ALS live. (So much so that some people have been so incredulous they've speculated the real Hawking died in the early 1980s and was replaced by a double!) Median survival is 3-5 years, but Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at age 21 and died at age 76.

    Given his original poor prognosis, I wonder if in his quietest moments Hawking ever thought he needed to get right with his Maker. After it turned out he was living longer than most with ALS, I wonder if Hawking in his solitude ever considered this might be something of a mercy.

    More likely he simply chalked it up to sheer dumb luck that he was living longer than the vast majority with ALS. If so, then perhaps Richard Dawkins put it best:

    In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

  2. Physicists can correct me if I'm mistaken, but my understanding is as follows:

    a. Hawking's main scientific contributions involve black holes (e.g. black hole theory) and quantum effects associated with black holes ("black holes ain't so black", as Hawking has put it). I believe he did other work including work attempting to unify quantum theory and gravitation, and his search for a unified theory was at the core of what he most hoped for, though I think most of this was in concert with colleagues like Roger Penrose. I think this is more or less the extent of Hawking's major scientific contributions.

    b. As such, I think Hawking's public reputation as "the next Einstein" is overstated. I suspect it's largely due to images of an intelligent scientist trapped in a wheelchair. As if beholding a pure mind almost but not quite unbound from its physical shackles. So physically fragile, yet mentally intact. It almost seems like the opposite of dementia. To my knowledge, his mind never significantly waned, even as his body deteriorated. The lights are on upstairs, though the house has broken down into a dilapidated dump.

    c. I've heard and read many physicists say Hawking did fine and respectable work with black holes, but they have likewise said Hawking was far from the likes of Einstein or Feynman. Einstein made "miracle" contributions which revolutionized physics and, indeed, how we now think about the world. Feynman had huge and varied interests, and, reflecting this, he made a wide-range of contributions to multiple areas in physics and even other sciences (e.g. he once made a minor but not insignificant contribution to biology, he helped kickstart the field of nanotechnology, he did interesting work in computer science when his son Carl Feynman decided to become a computer scientist and he started taking an interest in his son's work). Had Feynman been born a generation or two earlier, his contributions might have been more astounding than they were, but by his day there wasn't as much earth-shattering physics to uncover, not in comparison to those of earlier generations including Einstein. And, of course, Feynman always had that very unique if askew way of looking at physics that most other bright fellow physicists couldn't quite see or follow - often to the consternation of Murray Gell-Mann, among others.

    d. If we judge Hawking alongside colleagues of his generation like Martin Rees and Roger Penrose, my impression is Hawking is at best on par with Rees, but considerably inferior to Penrose (though Penrose is about a decade older than Hawking). No doubt Hawking was intelligent, but I don't think he towered above the rest of his colleagues like the public tends to think. At most, Hawking hovered a few inches above his colleagues. He was no giant.

  3. After the publication of his A Brief History in Time, which made him a wealthy and famous man, Hawking mainly became a populizer of theoretical physics and cosmology to laypeople.

    Hawking is likewise known for working his atheism into his popular books, at least among Christians. Sure, he's not as militant as other atheists (e.g. Dawkins), but it's fairly clear where Hawking's sympathies lie. His atheism was somewhat muted or hidden in A Brief History of Time, but it became more obvious later in life. For instance, I think the conclusion of Hawking's A Brief History of Time sets up human intellectual autonomy against God:

    However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. 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.

    The Grand Design attempts to eliminate the need for God. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have written in the book:

    It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.

    In fact, much of the book asks questions better suited for philosophers and theologians to address, even (ironically) as the book pronounces the death of philosophy. Perhaps Hawking should've heeded Feynman's words:

    I believe that a scientist looking at non-scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy - and when he talks about a non-scientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.

  4. I found Hawking's end of the world predictions amusing whenever they would come out in the media. By turns he feared global overpopulation would lead to an inhospitable planet for humans as well as famines and starvations and the like, A.I. would rise up against their human creators and destroy the human race, hostile intelligent extraterrestrials would invade and subjugate humanity, and so forth. Hawking may have been an intelligent man, but he wasn't a very original thinker, at least not when it came to apocalyptic scenarios! These might as well have been taken from the latest scifi or disaster flick.

    Still, because Hawking feared the end of humanity, and because he has said he was always inspired by "the stars", Hawking would often argue for space exploration and off-world colonization. (I guess Elon Musk is attempting to make that happen now.) I suppose Hawking believes humanity is in a precarious situation if all we have is this little rock orbiting an insignificant star to fall back on. However, as an atheist physicist and cosmologist, he surely must've realized at some point that even if humanity could somehow settle the entire universe (or multiverse), humanity will end with the end of the universe itself. It's like we live in a colossal bubble, but there's nothing outside this bubble, and if this bubble bursts or collapses, then it takes everything inside of it with it. If this life, universe, and everything is all there is - if the cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be - then there's no escape from it. There's no hope beyond it. And death is inevitable for everyone and everything. Maybe Hawking was hoping for an oasis in the desert or a restaurant at the end of the universe. If so, that kind of hope is like hoping for pie in the sky, by and by.

  5. As far as his personal life, Hawking's first wife was the devout Christian Jane Wilde. Jane knew him before he was diagnosed with ALS. She married him and stuck by his side as he deteriorated. She helped him as he completed his PhD (and she herself is no ignoramus as she later completed her PhD in medieval languages at the University of London). She was his wife, the mother of his children, and more. I haven't seen the movie, but apparently their romance is portrayed in the film The Theory of Everything. Yet Hawking eventually left Jane to marry his nurse. (I'm pretty sure that's not in the movie.) [I spoke too soon! This isn't correct. See the combox below. And thanks, JeremiahZ.]

    Jane once said about Hawking when they were still married:

    I pronounce my view that there are different ways of approaching [religion], and the mathematical way is only one way, and he just smiles.

    And Hawking once said to her:

    There is no room for God in my universe.

  6. On the one hand, it's quite a feat Hawking was able to remain relatively optimistic for so long despite his physical condition. As Hawking has said:

    If you are disabled physically, you cannot afford to be disabled psychologically.

    On the other hand, although it's evident Hawking's daughter Lucy adores her father, she has said the following about her father (Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, p 147):

    I think a lot of people don't realise just how stubborn he is. Once he gets an idea in his head, he will follow it through no matter what the consequences are. He doesn't let a thing drop...He will do what he wants to do at any cost to anybody else.

    Perhaps this is "the ultimate triumph" of Hawking's life.

  7. By contrast, the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell had a more modest and constrained view of science and scientists:

    Science is incompetent to reason upon the creation of matter itself out of nothing. We have reached the utmost limit of our thinking faculties when we have admitted that because matter cannot be eternal and self-existent it must have been created.

    I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable.


  1. Thanks for this Patrick, it's a great overview.

    ///I believe that a scientist looking at non-scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy - and when he talks about a non-scientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.///

    The blind spot of the self-absorbed sinner.

    ///Maybe Hawking was hoping for an oasis in the desert or a restaurant at the end of the universe.///


    ///There is no room for God in my universe.///

    He should have seen Van Til's two circles!

  2. He died on Pi Day. Interesting. Now he is a believer.

    1. He's a believer, but not a follower short of a deathbed conversion. Unless he's like the dwarfs (dwarves) who "refused to be taken in" in C.S. Lewiws' The Last Battle.

  3. For reference, they did include him falling in love with his nurse and the marriage with Jane ending in the final act of the movie.

    1. Thanks, JeremiahZ! I've fixed it above. (I guess that's what I get for such a hastily written post!)

  4. I quickly browsed through the alleged evidence for a Hawking replacement and only two issues that might look plausible is the shortening of the face/skull and the seemingly regrown teeth. But those are easily explained. It's true that some people heads grow as they get older, but some shrink due to malnutrition and lower hormone production. When it comes to the teeth, they can often seem to grow longer because the gums recede, and so exposing more of the teeth that was once hidden by the gums. All those pictures look pretty much like the same man, Paul McCartney [grin].

    1. That's helpful to know. Thanks, AP!