Hawking Hawking

There’s a very good new book about Stephen Hawking that just came out, Charles Seife’s Hawking Hawking. Some detailed reviews can be found at Prospect Magazine (Philip Ball) and the New York Review of Books (James Gleick). Seife has chosen to write the story of Hawking’s life starting at the end and ending at the beginning, which takes some getting used to, but provides a different perspective.

Hawking was a huge world-wide celebrity, widely considered by the public and the press to be the modern-day analog of Einstein, dominating the field of theoretical physics. His personal story, involving a long life battling a disease that left him quadraplegic and severely disabled, added greatly to the phenomenon he became. His life has been the subject of various books, films and TV shows, but only now, three years after his death, has something appeared that gives an account of this life corresponding not to myth but to reality.

The reality of this story is that Hawking was a very good theorist, with a high point of his career his work on Hawking radiation in 1974. I remember attending lectures by him at Princeton in the early 1980s, when he was actively working on Euclidean quantum gravity. His speech was hard to follow, so one of his graduate students or postdocs would translate for the audience. Unfortunately, the disease continued to take its toll, and after he nearly died from it in 1985, losing the ability to speak to a tracheostomy, all evidence I’ve seen is that he was no longer able to continue to do research at the highest level. From then on he lived a remarkable and full life for another 33 years, including some collaborative work with other theorists, but he was no longer the driving force behind any new research programs. Seife quotes extensively many physicists who worked with Hawking during this time, including Andy Strominger and Hawking’s student Marika Taylor, who give a fairly good idea of what it was like to work with him.

During the early 80s Hawking was quite fond of the idea that N=8 supergravity would be a successful unified theory, famously giving a talk about it entitled Is the end in sight for theoretical physics?. The advent of string theory coincided with the serious deterioration in his health and ability to communicate. From then on he was reliant on others to explain to him what was going on in string/M-theory:

[Marika] Taylor didn’t yet know how difficult the task ahead of her was. Her thesis was going to be on M-theory, but Hawking was not an expert on the subject. Taylor would largely have to guide herself straight to the frontier of an incredibly difficult branch of theoretical physics, digest all the important work of the past few years, and then teach Hawking what she had learned before even being able to come up with a thesis idea. On top of that, Hawking wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the string-theoretic parts of the theory: he just cared about supergravity. “As I was starting to go into those areas, I wouldn’t say that he was skeptical,” Taylor says. “He was just not interested… Actually I think the real truth is that he didn’t want to engage with people on territory he was unfamiliar with.”

Soon after I started this blog in 2004, I wrote here and here about Hawking’s heavily publicized talk in Dublin announcing that he had figured out how to resolve the black hole information paradox. I was baffled by reports of his talk and his paper, and not the only one. Seife tells the story of this in some detail, and I think the consensus is that there was no there there.

A large part of Hawking’s celebrity and income derived from his work as a popular author. His 1988 popular book, A Brief History of Time, was a huge success. Seife tells the story of how that book came about, partly motivated by the need for a new source of income. An initial manuscript due to Hawking was edited and improved a great deal before the published version was done. Many other books followed, and if you go to any bookstore with a science section, you’re likely to find quite a few of them for sale. The problem is that, on the whole, they’re not any good, and they’re not written by Hawking. Seife documents this sorry tale in some detail.

I first noticed this when I ran across a copy of God Created the Integers, a thick anthology of writing on mathematics, supposedly edited by and with commentary by Hawking. At least he’s listed as the sole author. Given the topic and the volume of material, it seemed highly implausible to me that Hawking was actually the author. For a review of the book, see here. Seife explains in detail that much of it is essentially plagiarized from other sources, and that to this day, it seems to be unknown who wrote the material (just that it clearly wasn’t Hawking).

At least this sort of thing got little attention, which unfortunately was not true of his 2010 The Grand Design, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow. I wrote about this book in some detail here. Put bluntly, it was an atrocious rehash of the worst nonsense about M-theory and the string theory landscape, with an argument for atheism thrown in to get more public attention. This is the sort of thing that has done a huge amount of damage to both the public understanding of fundamental physics, and even to the field itself. James Gleick’s otherwise excellent review of the Seife book ends with

Hawking promoted the theory of everything with a vengeance. He made it part of his brand. It was the title of the 2014 biopic in which Eddie Redmayne played Hawking. The much-quoted ending of A Brief History of Time raised the prospect of a complete theory—a final theory: “It would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” At the 1998 White House event, Hawking told the assembled dignitaries:

We shall have to rely on mathematical beauty and consistency to find the ultimate Theory of Everything. Nevertheless I am confident we will discover it by the end of the 21st century and probably much sooner. I would take a bet at 50-50 odds that it will be within twenty years starting now.

He would have lost that one, too. It was hubris—but it sold, and it is part of his legacy. He showed younger colleagues how to chase grand theories and best-selling books. Hawking is not the only physicist guilty of hawking.

The theory of everything is a false idol. Why should the universe, which grows more gloriously complex the more we see, be reducible to one set of equations and formulae? The point of science is not the holy grail but the quest—the searching and the asking. Let us hope there will never be a final theory.

We now live in an environment where the idea that there may be a deeper, more unified theory has become completely discredited, through the efforts of many, with Hawking playing an unfortunate part.

If you have any interest at all in Hawking’s story, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s a rich and thoughtful examination of his life and work, pushing aside the myth and bringing out the much more interesting reality behind it.

Update: There’s now a review of the book by Frank Wilczek in the New York Times.

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19 Responses to Hawking Hawking

  1. Sabine says:

    I suppose it was a difficult branch, not bran?

    I’m just here to say I’ve read the book too and also recommend it.

  2. Martin Visser says:

    I can’t quite make out what this phrase was meant to say – “and I think the consensus is that there was no there there.”

  3. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    I have a much more positive view of The Grand Design. For one thing, it’s well written and extremely readable, contrary to A Brief History of Time. And the central thesis of the book is precisely that there may not be one ultimate theory, only a number of partial theories, each explaining a limited range of phenomena. I found that surprising and refreshing because it suggested that Hawking (to the extent that he had anything to do with the contents of the book) had decided to move on from his “reading the mind of God” propaganda.

  4. Genghis Khan says:

    Whenever anyone mentions Leonard Mlodinow, I cannot help but think of Langlands’s incredible review of his book “Euclid’s Window”.

  5. Philip Gibbs says:

    It’s not unusual for physicists to do their most original work before the age of 40. Hawking gave us singularity theorems, Hawking radiation, quantum cosmology and much more. He brought new mathematical insight and tools to work on general relativity and opened up the field of quantum gravity when most physicists had no idea how to make any progress. He may not have solved the black hole information paradox, but he was the one who highlighted the significance of the problem in the first place and that is at least as important.

    It’s futile to compare the achievements of physicists who worked on different topics many years apart, but Hawking was a great physicist by any standard. In the UK his work was the subject of television documentaries from the mid 1970s, long before he started writing books, and it was very clear that being in a wheelchair was not the main reason for his fame. Nobody gets to be the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge because of media popularity.

    If he went on to popularise his work when it became difficult for him to keep up with later developments due to his condition, then that is to be celebrated. It was probably beyond human reach for him to take in the new mathematics of string theory enough to contribute to research given his disabilities, but he had worked on supergravity and could certainly see that it was a worthy natural progression. There is a wide range of opinions on the current state of subjects like M-theory, supersymmetry and multiverses among physicists and not everyone agrees with your conclusions. The status of the subjects may well be overhyped but the endgame has yet to be played out.

    If Hawking needed more and more help with writing his later books then that is understandable. It’s safe to assume that he was able to set directions, read drafts and suggest changes. Being able to keep up any kind of active life required finances and he may not have had his name attached to some of these later works otherwise, but I am sure he kept his integrity intact. Both his scientific work and his popular books will continue to be highly influential for a long time, and rightly so.

  6. Alice T. says:

    “There is no there there” is how Gertrude Stein famously described the state of broadband access in Oakland, the city of her 1874 birth. For more on this:


  7. Bill says:

    Who says the idea of a unified theory is discredited??

    It’s true that one or two first pass ideas didn’t work so far, but come on, even the over-the-top hype machine (hawking included) and a couple of possibly-failed attempts does not mean the universe doesn’t admit a simpler description than the standard model. It may be that unification is somehow truly, ultimately impossible, but the idea has barely just come into existence compared to the timescale over which we’ve been continuously simplifying our scientific theories of nature. I think people are generally smart enough to know not to take 20-30 years of limited work by a very finite set of people to mean that the whole idea of a unified theory is somehow “discredited” at this point.

  8. DSNYC says:

    It is worth pointing out here that had he lived not too much longer, there is every likelihood that Hawking would have shared the Nobel Prize with Roger Penrose.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    I should clarify what I see as Hawking’s role in this, it’s complicated. For evidence that the idea of a unified theory has been discredited, see the Gleick quote above, also Davide Castelvecchi’s comment (both of them are excellent science journalists). There are many examples of this from leading physicists that I’ve documented here on the blog, the latest was a couple weeks ago from Robbert Dikjgraaf, the IAS director, see here

    What’s driving this are various forces. The main one is the failure of the string theory unification program, together with the decision by many string theorists to refuse to acknowledge this, but to instead try to make the case that the conventional idea of a unified theory should be abandoned. Dijkgraaf is one example.

    Another force driving this is people like Kaku and his recent book. He’s loudly making the case for unification, but a case based on ridiculous claims about string theory and its testability that can’t be taken seriously. This does just as much damage to the case for unification as Dijkgraaf.

    Hawking is a more complicated story. Back in 1980, when he was still quite active and very aware of what was going on in the field (and pre-string theory), he made a strong case for unification via N=8 supergravity. That theory doesn’t quite work as a unified theory, although it comes remarkably close. His 2010 “The Grand Design” book was completely different. For a detailed discussion of it, see my review at the time, which I titled “Hawking Gives Up”

    That book really is a rehash of string theory multiverse pseudo-science, explicitly abandoning his 1980 point of view. Does it really reflect a thoughtful evaluation by Hawking of all the evidence or is it Leonard Mlodinow’s uninformed retelling of what people like Susskind were pushing at the time? I’d argue it’s likely more the latter than the former.

  10. Alan says:

    The book sounds interesting. My perspective may be biased because I did my PhD with Stephen in the late 1970’s so I was there when he became Lucasian Professor and I heard his talk about the possible end of theoretical physics. At that time his reputation among physicists was incredibly high due to over ten years of highly successful research. This included his analysis of general relativity, building on tools that Penrose had developed, and his work on quantum field theory on curved spacetime which culminated in his theory of Hawking radiation. At that time he seemed, at least to a lowly graduate student like myself, to be completely on top of the technical material. He had a great sense of humour so I wouldn’t be surprised if he joked about how he became Lucasian Professor just as he joked that deciding to study quantum gravity was the first sign that you are going mad. I had much less contact with him after my PhD because I decided that I didn’t have a clue about how to quantize gravity (and suspected that nobody else did either) so I left physics for the new and obscure subject of AI. When his book came out I was surprised that half way through it switched from material that was well established (e.g., by experiments or by strong circumstantial evidence) to ideas that were much more speculative, but without this being signaled to the reader. I found this, and the popularity of the book puzzling and always assumed that the success of the book was largely due to the photo on the front cover. The lack of distinction, in popular accounts of physics, between theories which are speculative and those which are experimentally verified has grown enormously over time and is the main reason why I keep coming back to this blog for a dose of heathy skepticism. It is now more than forty years since Stephen gave his lecture about whether the end was in sight for theoretical physics. My personal view is that in science, like in many things, it is important to be in the right place at the right time with the right skills. Quantizing gravity, or unifying physics, may be almost impossible to do by pure thought and might need to wait until there are experiments to guide us (perhaps finally there is a crack in the standard model). When I started my PhD I asked Stephen if there were any experiments to guide a theory of quantum gravity and he answered no with a big grin.

  11. Bill says:

    Hi Peter,

    Ok, fair that some people have somehow declared either failure or a moved the goal posts with respect to unification. However, just a comment from a “boots on the ground” theorist, I would say pretty much everyone actively working (e.g. not including Dijkgraaf) on hep/qg is still quite open to the idea of unification.

    OTOH, true enough that few people are very actively working on it, since at the moment there’s now a lack of promising immediate directions. In my biased/anecdote-based opinion, I think most people (especially younger people) would view this as likely a temporary situation rather than some fundamental roadblock. An undercurrent of current work is to poke around looking for news ways to approach unification, rather than to throw our hands up and declare it’s impossible.

    I suspect we would probably agree that the set of very public voices (e.g. Kaku and company) is an unfortunately very unfaithful representation of the field as a whole.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    It’s not that most theorists think unification is impossible, more that the general attitude now is that progress on unification is not on the agenda, but must await finding M-theory, or replacing space-time with amplituhedra or error-correcting codes, or finding a new particle at the LHC, or some new young Einstein telling us all the answer, etc. But that situation is a complicated topic, with people having many different attitudes.

    Staying with the topic of Hawking, I think the situation now is dramatically different than that of the 1980 when Hawking gave his talk and I was a grad student. At the time we’d just been through a period of huge progress on unification and there seemed every reason to believe that more was possible, so this was very much worth thinking about. Now we’re in very different times, with Hawking’s 1981 talk often treated the way Gleick treats it: a hubristic worship of a false idol.

    I see this history very differently: Hawking was not wrong to argue that N=8 supergravity was remarkably close to a unified theory and such a thing might be within humanity’s grasp. But within a few years after 1980, Hawking got too sick to keep working at the highest level, and most theorists working on unification turned to something different which really was a false idol. Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book was an example of where this led, perhaps a healthier Stephen Hawking would had a very different point of view.

  13. Mark Hillery says:

    The Grand Design should really not be referred to as Leonard Mlodinow’s book. An account of the writing of that book can be found in Leonard’s recent memoir about working with Hawking. Hawking was very much involved in its writing. To my knowledge, and the memoir reinforces this, the views expressed in the The Grand Design are mainly those of Hawking.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Mark Hillery,
    I haven’t seen Mlodinow’s recent book about working with Hawking, remember though reading something many years ago from him about this experience. From that and from the accounts of others working with Hawking in Seife’s book, my impression is that Hawking’s communication difficulties in later life meant that he was getting all his information second-hand, filtered through others. One thing I don’t know about is the extent to which he could, for instance, read a book or article on his own.

    My point about attributing the book to Mlodinow is somewhat of an exaggeration (likely the book reflected Hawking’s views accurately on many topics), but I think not when it comes to many scientific rather than philosophical issues. As an example, in my posting about the book, I quoted this:
    “various calculations that physicists have performed indicate that the [super]partner particles corresponding to the particles we observe ought to be a thousand times as massive as a proton, if not even heavier. That is too heavy for such particles to have been seen in any experiments to date…”
    This is misleading nonsense. Maybe it’s Hawking’s own nonsense, but I strongly suspect it’s nonsense that Mlodinow got not from Hawking but from somewhere else.

  15. Doug McDonald says:

    Peter: what does “finding M theory” in ” more that the general attitude now is that progress on unification is not on the agenda, but must await finding M-theory” mean?

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Doug McDonald,

    I think a common attitude among “string theorists” these days is that any hope of unification must await first finding out what M-theory=non-perturbative string theory is, i.e. actually have a full definition of what string theory is. The problem with this is that it’s a problem that has been around for 25 years, with no one having any viable ideas, so hardly anyone working on it.

  17. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Peter,

    While we are talking about relativists, one of the very greatest, Ezra Ted Newman, died on March 24. He made many lasting contributions to our understanding of
    general relativity (Kerr-Newman black holes, Newman Penrose spinors, heaven theory, (related to twistor theory and many others) and was much loved by many friends and colleagues.



  18. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks for letting us know Lee. I noticed there’s an obituary here
    Also, an older article about Newman here
    compares him to Hawking:
    “the physicist Stephen W. Hawking, who is about as good at attracting attention as Mr. Newman is at deflecting it.”

  19. Luysii says:

    Hawking did much more than physics. I ran a muscular dystrophy clinic for 15 years. I made sure my ALS patients knew of him (they didn’t in the 70s). Hawking gave them all hope, something no physician could do.

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