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String theory skeptic Peter Woit reflects on Stephen Hawking

Hawking Hawking

Recently, Barry Arrington offered some thoughts on the late Stephen Hawking. He’s been gone long enough that we can make a reasonable stab at assessing his legacy. Columbia mathematician (and string theory skeptic) Peter Woit has thought about that in connection with the new book, Hawking Hawking by Charles Seife:

A large part of Hawking’s celebrity and income derived from his work as a popular author. His 1988 popular book, A Brief History of Time, was a huge success. Seife tells the story of how that book came about, partly motivated by the need for a new source of income. An initial manuscript due to Hawking was edited and improved a great deal before the published version was done. Many other books followed, and if you go to any bookstore with a science section, you’re likely to find quite a few of them for sale. The problem is that, on the whole, they’re not any good, and they’re not written by Hawking. Seife documents this sorry tale in some detail.

I first noticed this when I ran across a copy of God Created the Integers, a thick anthology of writing on mathematics, supposedly edited by and with commentary by Hawking. At least he’s listed as the sole author. Given the topic and the volume of material, it seemed highly implausible to me that Hawking was actually the author. For a review of the book, see here. Seife explains in detail that much of it is essentially plagiarized from other sources, and that to this day, it seems to be unknown who wrote the material (just that it clearly wasn’t Hawking).

At least this sort of thing got little attention, which unfortunately was not true of his 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.

Peter Woit, “Hawking Hawking” at Not Even Wrong

Okay but it’s only fair to say that a large proportion of the public loves that sort of pop physics and has little interest in the serious kind. And never would have had. Hawking did not create that situation.

See also: Stephen Hawking Was Sometimes Embarrassingly Stupid (Barry Arrington)

Once you have seen how it was done with Hawking, recall what happened to Sagan. And now that you are on the historical time machine, it was done with Einstein, and Darwin. Keep going back and it happened with Newton. It is not that any of these people were dumb, they were just found to be useful for pushing a certain philosophical agenda. Sagan pushed Scientism. Einstein pushed Liberalism. Darwin pushed Atheism (you know, the respectable sort before Dawkins). And Newton pushed materialism. It was the -isms that made them famous, not the impenetrable math. So the next time a teacher says to her student--you could win the Nobel Prize, you could be as famous as Hawking! Ask what -ism they are hawking. Robert Sheldon

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