Hawking Hawking: author Charles Seife on how he cracked the cosmologist’s myth

The British cosmologist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018) was probably the most recognizable scientist of the last 50 years. Many of his greatest contributions were in the study of black holes.

In particular, he discovered in 1974 that black holes emit what came to be known as Hawking radiation — which shows that black holes are not truly black and appears to contradict quantum mechanics.

His public persona was forged by his popularization work, beginning with the wildly successful 1988 book A Brief History of Time and his appearances on television shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory. Later, he was the subject of the 2014 biographical film A Theory of Everything.

Part of the public’s fascination with Hawking lay in his stoicism in the face of adversity. When he was 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his doctors gave him two years to live. In the later decades of his life, he was almost completely paralyzed and spoke through a voice synthesizer, which became part of his mystique.

In the media, Hawking was often portrayed as a genius on a par with Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton, but it was an exaggeration that Hawking himself often resisted to. With his new biography, Hawking Hawking: The selling of a scientific celebrity (Basic Book, New York, US$30.00), Charles Seife wants to set the record straight.

Seife is a professor of Journalism at New York University and the author of six previous books. He has covered Hawking the researcher during his year as a reporter for Science.

Davide Castelvecchi, reporter from Nature, interviewed Seife to go behind the scenes. The following was edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to write this book? 

Charles Seife

Charles Seife

I never thought of myself as a biographer, even though my first book [Zero: Biography of a dangerous idea] was nominally a biography of a number. But when Hawking died and I saw the outpouring of grief, I was surprised by how little of it was about his science. There was more to the human than the simple picture people had. I had encountered him a few times, and I was tapped into the social circle of cosmology, so I knew how he was assessed. I decided it was worth doing a real, probing biography that got to Hawking as a human, as opposed to Hawking as a symbol.

What did you know before you started researching the book?

It was a complex picture. Perhaps the clearest event where I was watching from the inside was his 2004 announcement in Dublin that he had solved the black hole information paradox [which suggests that Hawking radiation violates quantum mechanics because it erases information from the Universe]. In speaking to people who were there, almost no one was convinced. There was this poignancy I was picking up, that you had this man who was beloved — his students really loved him, and he’d made some major contributions — but then he got up in front of people and no one bought it. People were wondering why he did it.

But for the public at large, he had this status as an oracle, and it really didn’t matter what he was talking about. 

When I have covered Hawking’s later work myself — for example the 2016 ‘black hole soft hair’ paper [1] with Andrew Strominger and Malcolm Perry, a proposed solution to the black hole information paradox — I couldn’t find a tactful way to ask what Hawking’s contribution was.

Was it hard for you?

It was sensitive. It’s common sense that when someone can talk at 3 words per minute, there is a limit to what he or she can contribute. Especially towards the end of his life, he wound up being oracular. With the soft hair, Strominger did seem to think that [Hawking] was definitely contributing, but it was clear that Perry and Strominger were doing the detailed work. So I don’t think that the co-authorship is misplaced, but it is also clear that he was not in the driver’s seat as he had been even ten years prior.

And yet in your book, Strominger is quite open also about those limitations. Do you think he would have been as frank while Hawking was still alive?

Probably not, although it’s matter of speculation. I’ve seen the reverse: while he was alive, some people would speak more frankly than [after he died]. For example, I was unable to get Sir Martin Rees to speak at all. He was a very close friend of Hawking.

I think in some way what I got from some of my interviews was a little bit of a sense of liberation. It now becomes less an issue of a working relationship with a fellow physics and more of a question of historical interest.

Were there other sources who were particularly forthcoming?

Yes, including many of his students. In particular, I had a very nice long epistolary discussion with Peter D’Eath [who works on classical and quantum gravity at the University of Cambridge, UK]. He exemplified a lot of what I was feeling while writing this biography: there was great admiration and yet there is a poignancy of feeling somewhat betrayal or anger of how the friendship fell apart. Marika Taylor [another former student of Hawking’s, now working on string theory and gauge-gravity duality at the University of Southampton, UK] also was incredibly forthcoming. I am really grateful to them, especially because every criticism of Hawking becomes a lightning rod and people start getting angry.

Other people absolutely refused to speak to me, including some of his antagonists, because they knew they just didn’t want to get involved in saying something about it. It’s almost like writing about Mother Theresa.

Were there surprises for you?

Yes, for example the no-boundary proposal [2] [a cosmological theory Hawking invented with James Hartle, now a professor emeritus at the University of California in Santa Barbara, which posits that time had no beginning]. My sources in the past had been kind-of universally dismissive of it. In probing a little bit further, I found a subset of cosmologists who at least think it is an interesting approach.

Do you have any favourite anecdotes you discovered in reporting for the book?

There’s just many little things you find along the way. I don’t know why I’m so fond of his time as a small boy on Majorca, where he visits the British poet Robert Graves, who has shellshock PTSD due to the First World War — and Hawking comes in with stink bombs and terrorizes Robert Graves.

Overall, after writing this book, I have a sense of the human, and I see all these little moments where he shows his humanity and the shield drops al little bit. One of my favourites is when [in 1988] an interviewer asks him whether he would give up his unusual intellectual abilities in exchange for being able to walk again. I really do think that the unguarded answer — he says “yes” — reveals a lot. And then he backtracks. [“I don’t want to be anyone else. People should be who they are”, Hawking told the interviewer.]

Everyone, even the people who knew him intimately, saw this heroic stoicism. Never any complaints, never anything but a grudging acceptance of his situation. That moment, in contrast, was so stunning, as small as it was.

Your book tells Hawking’s story in reverse, starting from his later years and going backwards in time. What made you make that choice?

I liked the idea of taking a known person, a fully formed person and chipping away at the layers. People do have their image of Stephen Hawking, so we can start with this image. And also I was very lucky because the one real difference is that science is progressive. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to narrate in reverse, except I was very lucky that towards the end of his life there was a little bit of recapitulation of his earlier work in experiments. Discussing the results from LIGO [3] [the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, which detected gravitational waves for the first time in 2015, and provided the most direct evidence yet for the existence and properties of black holes] allowed me to introduce his work on a basic level, so that later I could come back and explain it in more depth.

The third element was almost gimmicky: Hawking was interested in time travel. So doing the reverse time would be strangely subject-appropriate. So I think he would appreciate it. Also it avoids — a lot of biographies have a lot of anti-climax: there is a period of flourishing and then there is dying out. At the end of the book we’re seeing this young vigorous grad student who is just having a little bit of trouble walking.

[1] Hawking, S. W., Perry, M. J. & Strominger, A. Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 231301 (2016).

[2] Hartle, J. B. & Hawking, S. W. Phys. Rev. D 28, 2960 (1983).

[3] Abbott, B. P. et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 (2016).

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