Was Stephen Hawking a "scientific celebrity"?


Much has been written about world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking who died last week. Chris Chatteris looks at some of the content of Hawking's work and wonders about his popularising influence. He wonders if he said some of the things he did tongue in cheek. If  not, Chatteris says, then some of his speculations might just be a little "whacky". 

Stephen Hawking was no back-room boffin. He became a scientific superstar, a thinker whose mental capacities were held in awe by his generation. His degenerative disease and the heroic way in which he transcended it, added to this cult status. His powerful mind could range freely around the cosmos, defying his physical limitations. For this he is rightly admired. He went into black holes, quantum theory and general relativity in ways that no one had yet done.

He strove to formulate a unified theory of everything, believing that we would then understand the riddle of the existence of the universe and that we would not have to solve that riddle by recourse to God. For Hawking, gravity is that which makes the universe inevitable. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” he said, and, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

For the philosophical tradition which thinks in terms of contingency, or the idea that everything in our experience needs an explanation for its existence, and argues that this is only common sense, the obvious question is: what is the explanation for the existence of gravity? Is gravity eternal? Does it also come into existence ‘spontaneously’? Hawking would not be the first or last scientist to aver that science can explain why there is something rather than nothing. The philosophers at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences of which Hawking was a member, would no doubt have quietly felt that he was wandering into their areas of expertise and trying to answer philosophical questions with science whose proper domain is the observable and measurable. However, I wonder whether scientists themselves will now begin to question some of his more speculative scientific thoughts once the rather overwrought journalistic apotheosis of the great man starts to wind down.

For example, he seemed, on the face of it, convinced that humanity’s future survival depends on interstellar space travel. He was party to an idea of sending a tiny, laser-powered, space probe that could travel at a fifth of the speed of light, to our nearest neighbouring star Alpha Centauri to check out whether there was a habitable planet there for us to colonise. He even seemed to think that we would be able to solve the problems in colonising Mars. Well, we haven’t yet solved the problems of surviving on the harsher parts of our own planet, certainly not in any significant numbers. At the moment we are facing the problem of how to survive in significant numbers in Cape Town! And the solutions to surviving on earth are surely lest intractable and cheaper than surviving on Mars, although, as someone who lives in the Cape, it does sometimes feel as though surviving on Mars would be cheaper than surviving in Cape Town!

Hawking does admit that we should not neglect our own planet, but he also thinks that a space programme aimed at moving to another planet would give us another perspective on our problems here. The logic of that seems a little odd. At first, the manned space missions were about national rivalries. We got to the moon and then stopped going. Manned space travel now looks set to be the ultimate ego trip and extremely profitable branding exercise of billionaires like Richard Branson and Elon Musk. As for a planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, the logistics of getting enough people there to found a colony are, to say the least, daunting. The most wonderful thing to come out of the space programme, to my mind, was the totally unexpected breath-taking view of our own planet – earthrise! If ever there was a sign of the times, it was that image which seemed to be telling us to beware of neglecting it.

Maybe some of what Hawking said about space travel was tongue in cheek. His cited reasons for wanting to explore the possibility of space exploration and colonisation were the problems we are creating for ourselves on Mother Earth – depletion of resources, environmental degradation, possible nuclear war. Perhaps he really meant us to focus on these. The trouble with this approach is that people will always believe in magical solutions to major problems, and for the purposes of the next few decades, interstellar travel and even mass colonisation of Mars are, if not magical solutions, certainly science fiction.

Such thinking also feeds into a ‘get more’ solution to scarcity, rather than the more inconvenient and frugal solutions of ‘use less’ and ‘share better’. If our world is struggling to support us with our current consumerist lifestyle, then the colonising solution suggests to the scientifically ignorant that we can just go out and get more worlds. Problem solved.

So, Hawking’s ranging freely and speculatively around the cosmos is all very well, but the fact is that outer space is an environment which is extremely hostile to human life. Weightlessness and cosmic radiation are extremely bad for your health, and you have to take all your own air, water and food. One can make a pretty good argument that we are not designed or evolved either to travel through the lifeless element of space or settle on planets which might make the Empty Quarter of the Sahara seem benign. The call to “boldly go where none has gone before” is all very well, but if we distract ourselves about where we want our own planet to go, we might well end up carelessly condemning it to the Armageddon that Hawking warns us about.

I do hope that Hawking was tongue in cheek or that his remarks were off the cuff but taken too seriously by people who treated him like a scientific Delphic oracle. Because if he really was being deadly serious one would wonder whether some of these speculations were not, well, a little whacky. SA.

Image: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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Was Stephen Hawking a "scientific celebrity"?



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