Stephen Hawking | Critical Review by Gregory Benford

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Stephen Hawking.
This section contains 977 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gregory Benford

Critical Review by Gregory Benford

SOURCE: "Master of the Universe," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 23, June 7, 1992, p. 11.

In the following review, Benford surveys Hawking's life and work.

When I first came to know Stephen Hawking in the 1970s, his speech was already nearly unintelligible to all but hisintimates. Yet with laconic humor he soon showed himself to be a complex man who refused to be treated condescendingly because of his slowly worsening "Lou Gehrig's disease." He could be funny, arrogant, pensive, unafraid to bluntly tell others they were wrong, speculative one moment and intricately precise the next.

This is the Hawking who shines through both these books [Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: A Reader's Companion and Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, by Michael White and John Gribbin]. The Reader's Companion in fact spotlights his companions, with anecdotes related by friends and colleagues. It touches on some of Hawking's startling ideas, with elegantly simple illustrations. White and Gribbin's casually effective biography gives much more of the story, plus thumbnail sketches of how scientists work, think and argue. Their portrait of science as a lived experience in our time is telling and savvy.

Hawking himself rightly scoffs at references to himself as the "new Einstein." He is certainly one of the most influential—and more important, most imaginative—of living scientists. But his stature is not monumental on the scale of Newton, and I suspect that his personal drama transfixes the public more than his insights. As with Einstein, the public lingers long on his life, quickly sliding past the difficult science.

And then there is that metaphor which springs so readily to mind. Like those of a physicist drawn into a black hole, his signals come to us more weakly, pulsing slower, the swallowing darkness sluggishly robbing us of his fine intelligence. Kip Thorne of Caltech remarks on the middle stages of Hawking's disease, when he would make his way up to bed by grabbing hold of the pillars of the stairway, pulling himself up by the strength of his arms alone. It served as physical therapy, "yet at first, when you're a stranger to it, you're really taken aback and you see him through very different emotional eyes than after you've come to know him well."

Resolute, stoic energy became a signature. As Hawking says, in what White and Gribbin suggest would well stand as his epitaph, "One has to be grown up enough to realize that life is not fair. You just have to do the best you can in the situation you are in." Enduring would suffice for most, but Hawking soared.

His slow, descending gyre led him to develop geometrical methods of studying black holes, techniques that did not require writing down long equations. These were intuitive tools others did not have, giving him advantages, a habit of coming at problems with an odd twist. This led to a memorable episode in the early 1970s, when Hawking used the idea that black holes always get larger as they absorb matter, suggesting that the area of a hole is related to the disorder created in enlarging it. Disorder in physics is entropy, which relates to temperature. Following his intuitive nose, Hawking showed that holes do have a temperature, even though it took months for him to convince himself; at first hehad dismissed the idea, which had been introduced by a mere graduate student, Jacob Beckenstein. Slowly Hawking realized that the implied temperature was indeed real and that, like any other object, a black hole with a temperature would radiate. "Black Holes Aren't Black," as the title of his award-winning essay put it, and the discovery rocked the world of physics.

Hawking's mother believes that his affliction has made him concentrate on physics far more, compensating for dwindling physical mastery by building intellectual edifices—"he can so much live in his head." From this internal terrain sprang growing originality. In the last decade he has streamlined his methods still further, speeding toward his goal of understanding, as Einstein put it, whether God had any choice when He made the universe. Rigor slows, so Hawking uses his geometrical intuitions and physical, qualitative arguments to hasten results. "I would rather be right than rigorous," he says. This approach has led him to question whether our idea of time itself is the correct way to regard the origin of the universe—indeed, whether origins mean anything in a deeper picture.

There are compelling glimpses of vast intellectual landscapes in these books, but they share a warmer aspect—science as joy and rivalry, work and awe. We understand the surprise as his Oxford undergraduate friends discover that lazy Stephen has done 10 tough homework problems while they've struggled with one. We can nod, a bit dazed, when Anthony Hewish, a Nobel Laureate, remarks that in his early career, "we didn't even know whether the universe was evolving or steady state," and "the most fantastic thing about the last twenty years is that you can now argue about what went on before a millionth of a second after the beginning of time."

Questions of origin naturally bring in God. Hawking has rather cannily implied that, properly considered, the universe did not do something extra to get started. It could simply exist in its own self-made matrix, needing no God. Do such comments venture unnecessarily beyond physics? Hawking smiles enigmatically. His early agnostic stance has veered toward atheism, and this appears to have contributed to his separation from his wife of 25 years. Yet such severe emotional costs do not deflect him any more than infirmity did. His children remark on his strength of purpose with both wonder and concern.

To the credit of these books, they show Hawking as a whole man, by turns both stubborn and lofty, both comical and remote. They do service to him and to the great intellectual movement of outward discovery he represents.

(read more)

This section contains 977 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gregory Benford
Follow Us on Facebook