Being Stephen Hawking

Former Nature editor John Maddox on one of the most famous scientists of our age.

By Sir John Maddox|Tuesday, September 29, 2009
RELATED TAGS: COSMOLOGY, PHYSICS

Sir John Maddox, twice the editor of the journal Nature, was one of the most thoughtful voices in science journalism of the past five decades. He died on April 12 of this year, but his spirit lives on in this unique appreciation of Stephen Hawking, appearing in publication for the first time. Also see the related look at Hawking's recent work, "Stephen Hawking Is Making His Comeback."

On November 30 of 2006, in the august premises of the Royal Society of London, I had dinner with professor Stephen Hawking. To boast of having had dinner with Hawking creates a false impression. The circumstances were these. Since the summer I had been badgering the “graduate assistant to Professor Hawking” for an interview. Early in November, word came that Hawking was to receive the Copley Medal, the most venerable of the Royal Society’s gifts. I was invited; the date was plainly a license to join the scrum around the wheelchair after the group photographs had been taken.

Eventually I got to introduce myself, in a corridor crowded with people fighting their way to dinner. Stephen surprised me by remembering that I had been the director of the Nuffield Foundation when the trustees funded a summer school at Cambridge, bringing together the world’s gurus in cosmology and particle physics. “That started me off,” he said. The effect of any question on Stephen is electrifying. The luminous eyes stop scanning the faces around him to concentrate on the screen linked to his speech synthesizer. Something like a smile hovers on the left of his mouth. The great brain is entirely absorbed in scanning a list of words on his laptop. The replies are never short; invariably he tries to fit in a joke or something wry.

I asked Stephen whether he thought it likely that string theory would lead to the reconciliation of relativity and quantum mechanics that its army of practitioners promise, perhaps even pointing to the way in which the universe began. The answer came as rounded as all the others: Sure, it’s an important problem. We’ve learned a lot from what’s been done already. It’s too soon to know how it will come out. “But it’s the only bet we have.”

After dinner I was buttonholed by a friend, the retired head of an important university, who had seen me talking to Stephen: “Did you get any conversation out of that, then?” he asked. I answered, “No,” which was the truth: People with immovable vocal cords are poor conversationalists. The question buried in that, however, was whether Hawking is paid too much attention by the research community and by the world at large.

Hawking’s fans (of whom I am one) should not be surprised that he has critics. Part of the grumbling has its roots in that old human trait: envy. Despite his disability, Hawking has a lot going for him. His prose style is superb, more redolent of 18th-century essayists like Swift than what his contemporary peers customarily serve up. He also has an evident intellectual mastery of his field—that remote nexus between general relativity and quantum mechanics. How he keeps up is anybody’s guess.

The other persistent grumble is that the Hawking show has become a publicity circus. Academics, scientists in particular, are notoriously scornful of those among them who scamper after newspaper headlines and television appearances. But having witnessed Stephen’s emergence as a public figure over the past 30 years, I am convinced that he was at first genuinely surprised that a bag of bones slumped in a wheelchair would interest the TV crews, and that he is now persuaded he can use his status for good causes. He chimes frequently with his opinion that people are in danger of making such a mess of the planet that they had better quickly find a way of living somewhere else, and he battles for the alleviation of the disease from which he suffers.

All cosmologists are brave people, making scenarios from flimsy facts. The rest of us have no choice but to acknowledge our frailties. So why do I remain a fan of Stephen’s? First, he is a true scholar, knowing his subject inside out and persuaded of its inherent worth. Second, his courage in the face of his disabilities is a moving example of how people with such afflictions can make uncompromising accommodations with the world. And, third, he does all that with grace and wit.

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