15 March 2018


The death of Stephen Hawking yesterday left the world a less intelligent and less interesting place.  Few minds have achieved so much, even without considering the horrifying physical limitations against which he labored most of his life.

You can see an entertaining summary of that life here, in Hawking's own tweets (yes, he was born exactly 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo).  And there are many others better qualified than I am to assess his scientific achievements -- though not many truly well qualified, since his work was genuinely on the outer edge of human knowledge.  But he did emphasize making science, even the difficult and bizarre discoveries of modern physics, accessible to non-scientists; and he wrote one of the books which have had the most intellectual impact on me, The Grand Design.

In this book, Hawking explains how science has answered one of the fundamental mysteries which has long preoccupied human thought -- the origin of the universe, or the "why is there something rather than nothing" problem.  Right up front, on page 5, Hawking makes a blunt and startling assertion:

What is the nature of reality?  Where did all this come from?  Did the universe need a creator?.....Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.  Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.

Tough words, but the book more than backs them up.  Modern physics has changed our knowledge -- not just beliefs or mental models, but knowledge -- of reality itself.  This has reduced most of philosophy's traditional approaches to mere irrelevant word-games played in ignorance.  Unfortunately, this means that the real answers are not intuitively satisfying the way, say, evolution is.  But they're the truth; they describe what actually happened.  My own grasp of advanced physics is rudimentary, but Hawking's exposition enabled me to connect the dots and understand "the grand design".

Hawking was not afraid to dissent from popular mushy thinking even among scientists.  He strongly opposed efforts to actively send signals which would reveal humanity's existence to advanced alien civilizations (if they exist), arguing that if such aliens were hostile, they could threaten our very survival.  The efforts I have seen to refute this point never rise above the level of stringing clichés together.  Yes, it may be unlikely that advanced aliens would attempt to attack us, but as long as there's any possibility, we can't take the risk.

Humanity was lucky to have had Stephen Hawking for as long as we did.  We will always remember him as we continue the struggle for knowledge and understanding which he did so much to advance.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Wonderful tribute to a great man. We are lucky to have lived during his lifetime.

15 March, 2018 10:05  
Blogger Adam said...

I've seen the Theory of Everything, very wonderful movie

I also enjoyed his portrayal on the simpsons as well

And they had a TV series based on his work and narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch. Very fascinating stuff

15 March, 2018 12:51  
Blogger Kay said...

He certainly had an incredible mind that was ahead of his time. I loved him being on the Big Bang Theory. It was wonderful that besides being so brilliant and handicapped, he could also see humor..

Thank you very much for your visit and insightful comment. I totallly missed the significance of the healing and gills. We’re going to have to watch the movie again.

15 March, 2018 23:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks for reading! It's great that Hawking managed to get into so many different things and have fun despite his condition.

16 March, 2018 08:09  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

In the early eighties, when I was a graduate student at Cambridge, I used to eat lunch at the Graduate Union a couple of days a week, as it was close to my faculty's offices. Hawking used to be there almost every day; at that point he could get around pretty well in his motorized wheelchair. I can hardly claim to have been his friend, but by the end of my time, we would say hello and maybe talk for a couple of minutes. I did not have a clue who he was, and I have to admit I was stunned sometime later, when he began to get famous.

16 March, 2018 10:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

That's quite something, to have met Stephen Hawking!

16 March, 2018 15:54  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Thought you might like to read this account by Sean Carrol on a visit to CalTech by Hawking.

It reveals Hawking's strong, independent spirit.

17 March, 2018 12:53  
Blogger Holte Ender said...

I have a handful of books that will never make it to Goodwill, A Brief History Of Time is one.

19 March, 2018 13:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: Thanks -- included it in the link round-up.

Holte: I'd keep that one too!

20 March, 2018 04:44  

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