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.