Did The Media Make Stephen Hawking Famous?

Stephen Hawking is the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and author of A Brief History of Time

There’s no question that Stephen Hawking is the most famous living physicist right now. This article makes a critical examination on Hawking’s right to own his celebrity status.

 The fuss and drama surrounding his 70th Birthday is evidence that only someone like him can commend such a symposium with such publicity. But how did he become THIS famous and this well-known, and why?
The extensive coverage of Stephen Hawking’s seventieth birthday on January 8 focused on the physicist’s status as the world’s most famous living scientist. But journalists largely avoided commenting on the major force that created his celebrity: the media themselves.

Hawking – A Brilliant Mind?

The build-up began in earnest last week when Hawking gave an exclusive interview to New Scientist in which he discussed the most exciting development in physics over the course of his career (finding evidence that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang), his biggest scientific blunder (thinking that information was destroyed in black holes), and his advice to young physicists (formulate an original idea that opens a new field).

But none of these comments was as newsworthy, seemingly, as the response he gave to a question about what he thinks about most during the day: “Women. They are a complete mystery.” This quote was chosen as the lead in stories about Hawking by, among others, CBS news, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Huffington Post.

This focus on Hawking-as-personality illuminates a recurring theme in his public life: that his fame—his reputation as “the brightest star in the scientific universe”—has as much, and perhaps more, to do with his media-created popular appeal as with his scientific achievements.

Fame is not a result of some innate characteristic. There must be portrayal through the media. And at the very least, famous figures are complicit in the construction of their celebrity. But while coverage of behind-the-scenes image-making is routine in political journalism, there was an almost complete lack of similarly-angled coverage about Hawking.

Yet the New Scientist interview was not the first time that Hawking seems to have tailored his comments to garner journalistic interest. Throughout his career, he and his publishers have demonstrated a keen understanding of the dynamics of publicity.

The most-remembered part of his bestselling popular cosmology book, A Brief History of Time, was the last line, where he wrote that if scientists find a grand, unifying theory of physics, then “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” (He later wrote that he almost cut the last line, but that doing so might have halved his sales.)

Hawking – the philosopher

The promotion of A Brief History was heavily Hawking-centered. His photograph appeared on the coverage of most editions and part of the blurb for the 1988 hardback American edition, for example, read: “From the vantage point of the wheelchair where he has spent the last twenty years trapped by Lou Gehrig’s disease, Professor Hawking has transformed our view of the universe.”

His last coauthored book, The Grand Design, gained enormous amounts of publicity with its argument that many universes were created out of nothing after the Big Bang, arising naturally from physical laws, without the need for a creator to account for the origin of the universe. More coverage followed last May when he toldThe Guardian that there was no heaven. He said: “That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Some coverage of Hawking’s seventieth birthday did comment on his understanding of journalism’s attraction to charismatic individuals. Laura Miller at Salon reviewed the new biography by Kitty Ferguson, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, writing that the physicist’s personal struggles cannot be separated from his fame. She added that his references to religion could indicate “Hawking knows how just to tweak the public’s interest in him as an oracular figure.”

In another piece dedicated to the reasons for Hawking’s cultural prominence, Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and sciences at the University of Bristol, UK, said his fame, like his science, was multi-dimensional.

For her, his research was field-changing. A Brief History of Time stirred imaginations and Hawking’s appearances in entertainment media—on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and Pink Floyd’s Division Bell album, for example—contributed to his mystique, but, above all, his humanity and courage in living with the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease captured the public imagination.

It is this image of Hawking that has overridden all others—the impression of him, in the words of one journalist, as “a butterfly mind trapped in a diving-bell body.”

But for journalists examining Hawking’s wider profile, the crucial point to note is that these characteristics—his cosmological research, his popularization work, his physical condition—have all been combined and packaged in his media portrayal. His public image could not have occurred without the media. With his participation, they shaped and molded it.

This has led to tensions within his field. Other physicists have been, at times, ambivalent about his reputation, because of what some of them see as his having a public profile that is out of proportion to his scientific merit.

In 1999, Physics World surveyed approximately 130 physicists and asked them to name the five researchers who made the most important contributions to the field. Albert Einstein came first with 119 votes. Richard Feynman came seventh with 23 votes. Paul Dirac came eighth with 22 votes. Hawking received one vote.

In 1993, Jeremy Dunning-Davies, a physicist at the UK’s University of Hull, noted in the journal Public Understanding of Science that sections of the media have perpetuated the image of Hawking as a kind of “super-physicist,” portraying him as being more important than Nobel prize-winners such as Paul Dirac.

This popular status is potentially problematic because it could affect the decision-making process of science itself, as Dunning-Davies said colleagues of his had papers rejected for publication “simply because the end result disagrees with Hawking.”

Hawking – The early years

Such thorough, nuanced discussion has not figured prominently in the coverage of Hawking’s birthday. Instead, the reporting of a special symposium on Hawking’s life and work held at the University of Cambridge, UK, featured comments from one of the invited guests, entrepreneur Richard Branson, who said that Hawking should “have won the Nobel Prize many times” and “is somebody who has discovered many things in his lifetime.”

As a counterbalance, a piece by Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample outlined Hawking’s contributions to science, notably his black hole research. (See Below)

Hawking is a remarkable and inspiring man, and no scientific lightweight: he has made real contributions to his field and held for decades the eminent Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. More stories are bound to follow about him, but coverage that aims for a full and proportionate examination of his life should take into account how the media helped create, and perpetuate, the Hawking persona. Journalists, especially science journalists, should avoid hagiography when appraising famous scientists.

The Role ALS Played In Stephen Hawking’s Success

British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has received worldwide acclaim for his discoveries in the field, but still finds himself thinking, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m as famous for my wheelchair and disabilities as I am for my discoveries,” as he says in a recent PBS documentary.

“But it’s the discoveries that really catapulted Hawking into the pantheon of physics greatness, right?” Time and National Geographic contributing writer Michael Lemonick recently asked in a column. Lemonick joined HuffPost Live host Ricky Camilleri to discuss the roles both amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and brilliance have played in Hawking’s achievements throughout his career.

“The public has a general idea that he’s this incredibly smart guy who made discoveries,” said Lemonick. “If you ask about Einstein’s discoveries, they know e = mc2, they know relativity. You ask them about Hawking’s, they don’t have a clue. The truth is, among his fellow physicists, he’s respected for his discoveries but actually not a lot more than a lot of other high-level physicists. But the fact that he could make these discoveries given the limitations he’s been saddled with, that is kind of the amazing thing.”

At the end of the day, Lemonick does find Hawking’s drive more admirable because of his struggle with ALS.“If I had been suffering from this disease, I have every reason to believe I would have locked myself in a room and never wanted to come out, and he is exactly the opposite,” he said. “He has a drive and a spirit and a persistence that allowed him to do things that were pretty darn impressive against very, very long odds.”

What has Stephen Hawking done for science?

Some of the physicist’s greatest hits – from singularities in gravitational collapse to a quantum theory of gravity

1970 Singularities in gravitational collapse

Physicists working on Einstein’s theory of gravity noticed that it allowed for singularities – points where spacetime appeared to be infinitely curved. But it was unclear whether singularities were real or not. Roger Penrose at Birkbeck College in London proved that singularities would indeed form in black holes. Later, Penrose and Hawking applied the same idea to the whole universe and showed that Einstein’s theory predicted a singularity in our distant past. It was the big bang.

1971-72 Black hole mechanics

Black holes have their own set of laws that mirror the more familiar laws of thermodynamics. Hawking came up with the second law, which states that the total surface area of a black hole will never get smaller, at least so far as classical (as opposed to quantum) physics is concerned. Also known as the Hawking area theorem, it created a puzzle for physicists. The law implied that black holes were hot, a contradiction of classical physics that said black holes could not radiate heat. In separate work, Hawking worked on the “no hair” theorem of black holes, which states that black holes can be characterised by three numbers – their mass, angular momentum and charge. The hair in question is other information that vanishes when it falls into the black hole.

1974-75 How black holes can vanish

Nothing can escape a black hole, or so physicists once thought. Hawking drew on quantum theory to show that black holes should emit heat and eventually vanish. The process is slow for normal black holes. It would take longer than the age of the universe for a black hole with the same mass as our sun to evaporate. But smaller black holes evaporate faster, and near the end of their lives release heat at a spectacular rate. In the last tenth of a second, a black hole could explode with the energy of a million one megaton hydrogen bombs.

1982 How galaxies might arise

A popular theory in cosmology holds that the fledgling universe went through a period of rapid inflation soon after the big bang. Hawking was one of the first to show how quantum fluctuations – minuscule variations in the distribution of matter – during inflation might give rise to the spread of galaxies in the universe. What started as a tiny difference grew into the cosmic structure we see, as gravity made matter clump together. Recent maps of the heavens that pick up the faint afterglow of the big bang reveal the kinds of variations Hawking worked with.

1983 Wave function of the universe

Hawking has spent much of his time trying to develop a quantum theory of gravity. He started out applying his idea of Euclidean quantum gravity to black holes, but in 1983 teamed up with Jim Hartle at Chicago University. Together they proposed a “wave function of the universe” that, in theory, could be used to calculate the properties of the universe we see around us.

Source: Columbia

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