Monday, August 07, 2006

Stephen Hawking?

I interviewed Stephen Hawking just before the publication of A Brief History of Time. I wrote a nice enough piece, but I was uneasy for two reasons. First, I also interviewed his then wife and, entirely unprompted by me, she attacked him for his increasing intolerance. Secondly, I politely pointed out to him that his use of Wittgenstein in the book was simply wrong. He said it wasn't and would not argue further. After his subsequent rise to fame, I wrote other articles questioning his wisdom and received, as I recall, an angry letter from his mother. I also reviewed his later book The Universe in a Nutshell reasonably favourably, but pointed out that, this time, he had grossly misread the line from Hamlet that provided his title. The review will be in Selected Articles in a moment. This was such a gross misreading that it made me think Hawking either didn't care or he was unintelligent, the former obviously being the more likely explanation. Meanwhile, he has, of course, appeared in Star Trek and The Simpsons as a global emblem of high intelligence. Now he has also been in the news for raising the question - see here - how can the universe keep going for the next hundred years? He didn't have an answer, though he did say we would have to colonise space. I gather Hawking is a good physicist - though not, I am told, top rank - but his popular persona is palpably infantile and even illiterate, perhaps because he sees condescension as the appropriate vernacular for the masses. It is a most bizarre and ridiculous phenomenon.


  1. Just thinking on this Bryan, and it reminds me of Nietzsche's disgust with the Spirit of Democracy and its ever growing strength. You know the idea that we are all equal and this essentially at odds with an aristocratic sense. Illustrative of this seems to be how incredible genius such as Beethoven or El Greco would seem quite out of place in this age.
    How Hawking fits into this is that the intellect is not the friend of an intentionally created culture of idiocy shovelled down the masses' throats. But it would be nice to have the illusion of giving the intellect its fair due-we are an enlightened age after all. And so people get to feel a kind of awe for Hawking's pure mind while the pleasures of condescension at his physical condition. The intellect may be all well and good but would one really want to be Hawking! He is the perfect symbol of a neutered intellect that one has the generosity to patronise. DH Lawrence echoes here somewhere.
    So Hawking a kind of Elvis figure for the age, were he not born he would have had to have been created.

  2. Note that Hawking has also appeared in an episode of Futurama, in which he repeatedly takes the credit for other people's ideas. The following exchange is typical:

    Nichols: It's about that rip in space-time that you saw.

    Hawking: I call it a 'Hawking Hole'.

    Fry: No fair! I saw it first!

    Hawking: Who is The Journal of Quantum Physics going to believe?