The Science of Stephen Hawking by John Gribbin
I first met Stephen Hawking when I was just starting my astrophysics PhD in Cambridge, and he had just finished his. By the time I finished mine, he was already recognised “in the trade” as something special – so special, in fact, that it was partly because I knew how far below him my ability stood that I abandoned any thoughts of a career in astrophysics and turned instead to writing. What I did not appreciate at the time, of course, was just how very few people in the trade, even successful professors of astronomy, had anything like his ability. Maybe I could have made a living as a second (or third) rate astrophysicist. But I have never regretted the decision, which allowed me, instead of specialising as someone who learned more and more about less and less (eventually knowing almost everything about hardly anything), to generalise as someone who learned less and less about more and more, until I ended up knowing nearly nothing about almost everything scientific, and sharing that knowledge with others.
While this was going on, I followed the career of my former colleague with interest, and from time to time used his ideas as the basis for my writings. There was plenty of scope for this, because almost uniquely Hawking was an expert who learned more and more about more and more, ending up knowing almost everything there is to know about how the Universe works. For a long time, the world at large knew little about this. But following the publication of A Brief History of Time, Hawking became famous. Unfortunately (from my point of view) he did not become famous because the world at large now understood his work and its importance; he became a classic example of being “famous for being famous”, and the dramatic image of the brilliant mind trapped in a failing body, though true, overshadowed the message of just what that brilliant mind had achieved. Hawking replaced Einstein as the iconic definitive image of a scientific genius, and happily played up to this with appearances in, among others, The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons.
When Hawking died, in March 2018, this image was perpetuated in many obituaries and other appreciations, and the hoary old quip that A Brief History of Time was the least-read bestseller of all time was duly trotted out. This provoked me into wanting to make some amends, not just for the sake of getting due attention for Hawking’s work, but because of a long-felt irritation at the way some people (fortunately, fewer than in years gone by) still seem to take pride in their wilful ignorance of matters scientific. If a scientist were to express a total ignorance of and lack of interest in classical music, he or she would be regarded as an uncultured oaf. But if an opera buff expresses total ignorance of and lack of interest in the world of science, this is sometimes presented as something to be proud of. Yet Hawking’s work is among the most significant achievements of the human mind of the twentieth century, and ought to be known to opera buffs at least as well as La Traviata is known to scientists – which, I can safely assert from personal experience, is quite a lot.
So I decided to write a short account of Hawking’s work, accessible in the sense that it contains no mathematics, and also in the sense that it should be disseminated as widely as possible at as little cost to the reader as possible. Endeavour Media agreed with the idea, and between us we managed to produce The Science of Stephen Hawking at a reasonable price to the reader (you, I hope!) – please let us know if you think we have hit the mark!
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