The Theory of Everything

Hollywood theoretical physics week, focusing on quantum gravity and black holes, continues with the opening this weekend of The Theory of Everything, a Stephen Hawking biopic. It’s quite good, although a bit too heart-warming for my taste. The focus is on the relationship between Hawking and his wife Jane, and there’s quite a bit more emphasis on religion than can really be justified. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Eddie Redmayne gets an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking. It’s very impressively well-done, and the sort of inspirational material the Academy Awards people love.

There are things you could complain about in the film’s portrayal of the science (and Dennis Overbye does so here), but this was handled better than I expected, with some reasonable relationship to reality, given the constraints of this kind of movie. In every way, a better film than Interstellar, the other Hollywood theoretical physics movie of the week.

Watching the film did remind me of days long past. When I was a graduate student in Princeton I remember Hawking coming there to give a talk (or talks?), this would have been around 1980. He was talking about Euclidean quantum gravity, and at the time was still able to speak, but his speech was so indistinct that someone who worked with him translated, repeating what he said so everyone could understand. At the time, the general feeling was something like “great physicist, too bad the guy only has a year or two to live” (he did come close to passing away in 1985). I’m absolutely sure that no one then would have believed it possible that he’d go on to become a huge celebrity, make it through two failed marriages, sell 10 million books about physics, and still be with us and active deep into retirement age. Personally I thought a lot of his last book was misguided (see here) but his is an amazing story and he’s got a lot better excuse than his able-bodied colleagues for giving up and going for the multiverse.

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14 Responses to The Theory of Everything

  1. Spelling says:

    “Stephen” rather than “Steven”?

  2. Katy says:

    “….but his is an amazing story and he’s got a lot better excuse than his able-bodied colleagues for giving up and going for the multiverse.”

    Not a fan multiverse fan, thankful for this blog, disappointed with this concluding sentence. What on earth doe Hawking’s disabilities have to do with his belief in the multiverse?

  3. Katy says:

    Seriously, if Hawking believes in the multiverse, it’s not because he “gave up.” Say what you will about the man- his disability has never caused him to lose interest in scientific advancement.

  4. Known As Drew says:

    Don’t know if you’ve seen the 2004 BBC biopic “Hawking” starring a young(er) Benedict Cumberbatch. Managed to avoid being sentimental or mawkish. Recommended.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks. Fixed. I always make that mistake. I blame it on my brother, Steve.

    Sorry, but I do think that the M-theory/multiverse argument is very much what people do who are giving up on really understanding unification (and the movie paints Hawking’s main early scientific motivation as understanding unification). “The Grand Design” really is a book that does serious damage to science, by blithely claiming that the M-theory multiverse is a solution to the unification problem. Hawking should know better, just like a lot of other prominent theorists should know better.

  6. Jon says:

    I, too, was disappointed to read the last sentence of this post. Sure, you can say he gave up, but your response to Katy does nothing to clear up why you conflate his physical condition with his position on these theoretical issues. Total cheap shot.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I didn’t conflate his physical condition with his position on the multiverse. My comment was more a cheap shot at a long list of his colleagues, who don’t have the excuse of having to work under extremely challenging conditions to explain why they have taken the easy way out and given up. I don’t claim that Hawking’s disability is why he has chosen to give up, just point out that at least he has an excuse for doing so, unlike others.

    But, make no mistake about it: Hawking, like others, has chosen to give up. This is a great shame, given his huge influence.

  8. disgruntled says:

    Peter – non-scientist, read your blog, find it hugely interesting.

    I’ve always thought your arguments carry far more weight and are more likely to influence when they are devoid of sly comments, blithe ‘humour’, cheap shots or the like. This is a case in point.
    Your last sentence is very mis-guided, and your responses to Jon and Katy actually make the situation worse – you actually seem to suggest that you used Hawking’s physical condition to make a cheap shot at others……..

  9. Cosmonut says:

    IMO, Hawking’s huge influence is mainly due to his physical condition and his grandiose claims about wanting “complete understanding of the Universe”, “knowing the mind of God” and so on.
    His big discovery about black hole radiation happened 40 years ago and while certainly excellent work, it doesn’t really merit comparison to Einstein (whom the media love to compare Hawking to).

    But while media hype is one thing, what annoys me is that Hawking does disingenuous PR for himself as in his “Grand Design” book where he claims that the Theory of Everything has already been discovered and hence, he has already achieved his goal of “understanding it all”, which is quite false.

    Even worse is his recent autobiography where he presents his highly speculative hypotheses as established scientific facts. For example, he explicitly claims that “the No Boundary Principle is the reason why anything exists at all”.

    This is not just hype, its outright dishonesty to boost his own image.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Sorry, but this blog is chock-full of sly comments and blithe “humour” that not everyone finds funny. Always has been and always will be. I do try and keep the cheap shots to a minimum, the reference to my making them here was in the blithe humor category.

    A certain amount of humor in confronting the massive PR campaign by Hawking, Susskind, Linde, Guth, Polchinski, Arkani-Hamed, Carroll and a raft of others to promote pseudo-science seems to me a healthy way to deal with an otherwise thoroughly depressing and intellectually empty subject. I intend to keep at it.

  11. jd says:

    Amen, Peter Woit. I find that my sense of humor, dark though it is, maintains my sanity. You hang in there.

  12. Jim says:

    I will join the chorus saying the last line is pretty bad and if you are worried PR then you ought to remove it (as well as this comment when you’re done).

    The point is that it reads more or less as “Hawking’s in a wheelchair, so we don’t have to expect too much from him. These other guys aren’t, what’s their excuse?!” A bit mean-spirited, wouldn’t you say? And that’s only if we accept your premise that accepting the multiverse is tantamount to giving up. We are therefore left with the conclusion that either accepting the multiverse (as such and so famous physicists do) is NOT giving up or the opponents of the multiverse are arguing from a mean-spirited position. Or both. Whatever the case, it’s not a good look.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve repeatedly clarified exactly what I meant, and I actually don’t think there was anything at all unclear about what I originally wrote. If you or others just ignore that and want to argue about something else, I don’t see why that’s a good reason for me to delete things because of PR concerns.

    One additional perhaps clarifying remark: there is no humor here, this is about two tragedies. The first is Hawking’s medical condition, which has forced him to try and survive and work under an awful set of constraints. The second is the tragedy of the descent of a subject with a great history into pseudo-science, led on this path by Hawking and many others. Why each of these scientists have given up on the tough job that initially inspired them is a complex issue that will keep historians of science busy in the future. One aspect of this issue is a moral one, and all I’m pointing out is that Hawking’s situation on that front is different than that of others.

  14. Katy says:

    If you believe that Hawking has given up intellectually, fine, but don’t tie his disabilities into that decision. (You are, ultimately, speculating why he has bought into the multiverse nonsense). Read up on ableism and how language, conflation and projection have real ramifications on disabled people. It’s not a matter of what you meant, it’s what you said.

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