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?
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. Read more