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Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit offers a shrewd assessment of Stephen Hawking and pop physics

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In relation to Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

Hawking was looking for a unified theory and Woit thinks the idea is pretty much discredited now: “We now live in an environment where the idea that there may be a deeper, more unified theory has become completely discredited, through the efforts of many, with Hawking playing an unfortunate part.”

Hawking was a huge world-wide celebrity, widely considered by the public and the press to be the modern-day analog of Einstein, dominating the field of theoretical physics. His personal story, involving a long life battling a disease that left him quadraplegic and severely disabled, added greatly to the phenomenon he became. His life has been the subject of various books, films and TV shows, but only now, three years after his death, has something appeared that gives an account of this life corresponding not to myth but to reality.

The reality of this story is that Hawking was a very good theorist, with a high point of his career his work on Hawking radiation in 1974. I remember attending lectures by him at Princeton in the early 1980s, when he was actively working on Euclidean quantum gravity. His speech was hard to follow, so one of his graduate students or postdocs would translate for the audience. Unfortunately, the disease continued to take its toll, and after he nearly died from it in 1985, losing the ability to speak to a tracheostomy, all evidence I’ve seen is that he was no longer able to continue to do research at the highest level. From then on he lived a remarkable and full life for another 33 years, including some collaborative work with other theorists, but he was no longer the driving force behind any new research programs. Seife quotes extensively many physicists who worked with Hawking during this time, including Andy Strominger and Hawking’s student Marika Taylor, who give a fairly good idea of what it was like to work with him.

Peter Woit, “Hawking Hawking” at Not Even Wrong (April 8, 2021)

Apparently, Hawking was hopeful for certain conclusions but didn’t really know much about “what was going on in string/M-theory.”

The reality, as Woit points out, is that Hawking probably did not write a good deal of what is attributed to him. In short, Hawking’s corpus was, in large part, what various popular science writers wanted us to accept. And people accepted it because it seemed acceptable. Nobody checked. Most did not want to.

One Reply to “Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit offers a shrewd assessment of Stephen Hawking and pop physics

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    as to:

    At least this sort of thing got little attention, which unfortunately was not true of his (Hawking’s) 2010 The Grand Design, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow. I wrote about this book in some detail here. Put bluntly, it was an atrocious rehash of the worst nonsense about M-theory and the string theory landscape, with an argument for atheism thrown in to get more public attention. This is the sort of thing that has done a huge amount of damage to both the public understanding of fundamental physics, and even to the field itself.

    Ouch! John Lennox’s comment that Hawking’s book was ‘nonsense’ looks mild in comparison to that critique.

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