Friday, May 7, 2021

Stephen Hawking’s unusual appearance again

Although it is not an authorized biography, “Hawking Hawking” is deeply researched and extensively sourced. It includes new interviews with several people who interacted closely with Hawking, including students, colleagues, and intellectual rivals.

This is a book for general readers. It describes the cultural and broader scientific context of Hawking’s work, and its reception, but does not provide implicit accounts of the work itself. If you want to learn whether there is a singularity theorem, Hawking radiation or no boundary motion, then you have to look elsewhere. Seife succeeds in serving some of those tastes of difficult and rather esoteric ideas that in a way would not induce ordinary readers to contribute to Hawking’s science. But it can leave you hungry for more. If so, better, because Wikipedia and Google will also reward your inspired searches.

Seiff’s odd choice to narrate his story using reverse chronology is noticeable. He thus begins with Hawking’s death and ends with his childhood. It is an unusual but stimulating structure. In fact, the incident of an almost “locked-in”, physically helpless and non-statist who inspired millions of adorers for their intellectual mastery over the universe, to be interred next to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey It is so extraordinary that the question “How did this happen?” Maybe you keep turning the pages. But unlike time, the plot does not match how readers generally understand stories, nor the logical development of ideas. I had to move around a lot, and I think people less familiar with science could easily lose the thread.

In the popular imagination, Hawking was an accomplished scientist and a pure soul who had courageously overcome physical disabilities, while becoming a publishing sensation and a performance icon, more or less as a trivial result. The image is uniquely based on an inspirational life of achievement, but, as Seife amply documents, it portrays a perfect figure. Hawking performed important works of two brilliant, rather imprecise branches of theoretical physics, namely mathematical theories (as opposed to phenomena), black holes and Big Bang cosmology. He was certainly not a pioneer of a “theory of everything”, as often pointed out, nor did physicists hang on to his accent. He did his best before his worst work, and his personal life was somewhat problematic. “A Brief History of Time,” his runaway hit, is not a masterpiece or exposition of science; And its production and promotion was the effort of a calculating team.

I got to know Hawking well during a week-long conference on cosmology held in the summer of 1983. By this time his speech was unintentional at first exposure, but with a little practice it made sense, and more-or-less normal conversations were possible. He and his first wife, Jane Wilde, were very kind hosts to me and my wife, Betsy Divine, when we arrived in tow with a child and young child. He was a good-humble and funny person. Once upon a time, he enjoyed playing chess with Betsy, while Baby Meera uncluttered her shoes and slippers. We became family friends. The conference proved to be a milestone event, where the central ideas of inflationary cosmology came together and axial cosmology was born. Hawking actively participated in the scientific program, often making sharp observations and posing difficult questions, in addition to furthering his version of inflation. This conference, sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, can be retrospectively characterized as Hawking’s high point as a practicing scientist. There he gave directions to a new generation of physicists and cosmologists, based on his earlier and ongoing work.

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