In 1992 I joined with other physicists in lobbying for the funding of a large elementary particle accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider. We had the bright idea of holding a seminar for members of the House of Representatives, at which we would explain the importance of this facility for scientific research. Three congressmen showed up. After we had said our piece, a Democratic congressman from Maryland told us that he would support the Super Collider if we could assure him that it would help the work of Stephen Hawking.
As this little story illustrates, Hawking had by then achieved the sort of celebrity as a scientist that in the twentieth century was exceeded only by Albert Einstein and perhaps Marie Curie and Richard Feynman. Nor is Hawking’s fame undeserved. Already when young he had done brilliant mathematical work (in part with Roger Penrose), proving that, according to the General Theory of Relativity, there are circumstances in which a disaster becomes inevitable—an infinitely compressed energy arises in an infinitely curved spacetime, as in the case, for example, of black holes. Later, he showed that black holes radiate energy, now known as Hawking radiation. He was one of the first to use quantum mechanics to calculate the properties of fluctuations in the distribution of energy in the early universe, tiny fluctuations that eventually triggered the formation of the galaxies we see in the sky today. All this and more Hawking achieved despite a worsening physical disability that would have defeated anyone not possessed of his remarkable courage.
Hawking’s 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, had stunning sales, so much so that for a while publishers were making unrealistic cash advances to authors of other popular books on science (including one of mine), in the deluded hope that they would match his sales. Now Hawking offers another book for general readers, The Grand Design, this time written with the Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow.
The reviews of Hawking’s book1 that I have seen have commented chiefly on the absence of God in his view of the universe, as if this was something surprising. This reaction to the book is pretty silly. Hawking’s point is that we do not need God to understand the cosmos. Scientists may disagree about how well we understand the cosmos, but not many feel that it is God that is needed to fill the gaps. In A Brief History of Time, referring to a possible future discovery of a complete theory of nature, Hawking had written that “then we would know the mind of God.” But this was a metaphor, like Einstein’s remark about God not playing dice with the universe. Perhaps to avert misunderstanding, in The Grand Design…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.