Stephen Hawking's Reputation
April 26, 2010 9:44 AM   Subscribe

What does the astrophysics community think of Stephen Hawking?

Is he losing it? Did he ever have it? I know science popularizers are often poorly regarded by colleagues, and I also know that once prominent scientists can fall out of favor. What is said about Hawking behind closed doors at professional meetings? How does this differ (if it does) from what was said when A Brief History of Time came out?
posted by Crotalus to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
He holds Newton's chair. That is perhaps not the only thing associated with Newton he shares. Enough said.
posted by adipocere at 9:50 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just to clarify, he held the Lucasian chair (Newton's position) until he retired last year. He had it for 30 years.
posted by mohrr at 9:54 AM on April 26, 2010


To piggyback a little, how might Hawking's recent comments about aliens affect his reputation?
posted by box at 9:56 AM on April 26, 2010


The alien comment (and other recent comments) prompted the question.
posted by Crotalus at 9:58 AM on April 26, 2010


Closed-door rumors about Hawking are mostly about his personal life. Other than that he is well respected.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 10:06 AM on April 26, 2010


FWIW, I've been to a few meetings where he's been in attendance, and with the exception of one, he was an eminence in the room but not the dominant one. (The exception is the meeting in Dublin where he conceded his Preskill/Thorne information bet... more on this shortly.)

My perception (as a journalist, not a physicist) is that he's highly regarded for his work in the 1970s; the stuff since then, not so much. I don't think the popularization element has much to do with this. He had a burst of amazing creativity and insight during one part of his career that he wasn't able to keep up... and many of his later ideas seemed pretty idiosyncratic.

The information concession was a good example of this. He was taking a position about the loss of information that was a minority view, esp. after some later theory convinced most of the community. And then he reversed himself -- coming to the conclusion that most other physicists already had come to -- with a theoretical paper that seemed less than convincing.

I don't think anyone in the field sees him as doing work as important as what Newton or Einstein did. My perception is that he's seen as a capable and interesting theoretician who's made some very significant contributions. I'd put Preskill, Thorne, Bekenstein, and Wheeler in the same category. (Maybe because I've got black holes on the brain.)
posted by cgs06 at 10:17 AM on April 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


In The Black Hole War, Leonard Susskind often referred to how much he respected Hawking, even if he could be a bit arrogant and stubborn sometimes.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 10:17 AM on April 26, 2010


if it's said behind closed doors I doubt anyone will post something confirming it to this public website.

Academics are just like other people, and commonly hold people in high esteem who are later forgotten, and vice-versa... So, I appreciate the question, in that I kind of wonder too how seriously some of these comments get taken, but in the end, lots of scientists say weird or dumb things along the way (Richard Dawkins with that whole "life's from outer space" thing, eg)...
posted by mdn at 10:20 AM on April 26, 2010


There's a long and noble tradition of older physicists getting to a point in their careers where they cut themselves loose from the mainstream of science and think deeply about weird things. Sir Roger Penrose did some ground-breaking things in general relativity from the late '60s through the mid-'70s, and then started worrying about the nature of quantum collapse and consciousness. Freeman Dyson should, by many accounts, would have shared the Nobel Prize won by Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga had the Nobel committee's rules precluded more than three people from sharing the prize; in recent years he's expressed some skepticism towards the accuracy of climate modeling. John Wheeler was perhaps one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, but his later career was spent speculating about the relation between matter and information theory and the anthropic principle. Enrico Fermi famously speculated about the presence of alien civilizations in the later part of his career. Hell, even Albert Einstein spent the last part of his career trying to come up with a unified field theory while becoming increasingly isolated from mainstream physics.

None of these scientists have had their reputation tarnished merely by the fact of thinking about these off-the-wall topics; it's generally recognized that the stuff they're thinking about is highly speculative, but it's also recognized that they've got significant laurels to rest on. Speaking as a physicist who works in Hawking's field (general relativity), I can tell you that Hawking's work in the '70s and '80s was extremely important for the development of the field as it's understood today; he's got a big number of laurels to rest on too. The general perception, I think, is that he's a very smart guy who might not be working in on mainstream stuff anymore, but who remains highly intelligent. If I had a chance to talk science with him, I'd take it in a heartbeat.

Bonus link: my account of Hawking's famous 2004 talk on the information paradox, referred to by cgs06 above. I should note that to the best of my knowledge, the proof of one of the key points in Hawking's argument has not yet been published.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:36 AM on April 26, 2010 [10 favorites]


He holds Newton's chair. That is perhaps not the only thing associated with Newton he shares. Enough said.

Actually, I don't think that is enough said because I didn't get your message. Are you saying he's both brilliant and acknowledged as such? Or are you saying he's hard to get along with? Or that he should be put in charge of the Mint? He's a virgin? Or some other thing?

lots of scientists say weird or dumb things along the way (Richard Dawkins with that whole "life's from outer space" thing, eg)

I don't know what this is about, but if it's panspermia/exogenesis it's not that weird or dumb.
posted by DU at 10:39 AM on April 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Derail: in Cambridge, he's known for being quite a lairy driver of his wheelchair who takes no prisoners on narrow sidewalks.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


if it's said behind closed doors I doubt anyone will post something confirming it to this public website.

Heh. Happy to confirm.

Scandal 1: His marriage broke up and he wound up marrying his nurse. The nurse happened to be married to the guy who designed his voice synthesizer.

Scandal 2: A few years ago, there were some pretty nasty rumors about how the new Mrs. Hawking was treating Stephen -- there were allegations of abuse. For what it's worth, Stephen himself denied those rumors publicly. The couple are now divorced.

Very minor scandal that I wanted to report on because of the humor value but my editors wouldn't let me for reasons that are totally valid: Hawking was spotted going into a strip club in London, and apparently spent several hours with one of the strippers, and supposedly . A colleague and I had tracked down the stripper (if I recall correctly, her stage name was "Tiger") and scheduled an interview. I wanted to find out what a Tiger and Hawking would discuss for so long -- g-string theory, perhaps(*) -- but my editors pulled the plug. Probably a good thing.

At meetings, there were scandalous rumors floating around a little bit -- but, generally speaking, they were nothing but idle gossip. The only time I noticed that Hawking was a really major subject of rumor was at a meeting in late 2003 when he was ailing. There was a palpable swelling of concern that he was not going to be with us much longer.

(*) I really hope it wasn't the no-hair theorem.

Upon preview:
he's known for being quite a lairy driver of his wheelchair
True that. Nearly got me twice. Actually ran over an ex-gf's foot once.
posted by cgs06 at 10:46 AM on April 26, 2010 [10 favorites]


Okay, I guess I will say more, then. Newton had a poor reputation for playing with other academics — see Leibniz and calculus — behaving as a covetous, credit-grabbing person who was loath to admit his mistakes. Kip Thorne has made "read-between-the-lines" comments, in person, about how much of the work for which Hawking is known might be better attributed to him. He is not the only one.

Few wish to speak ill of him, reasons for which may lie somewhere between popularity and disability, because, well, do you really want to be the person picking on the guy in the wheelchair?

Going after his nurse is, I thought, reasonably well-known. One interview I saw (I forget the source, it's been past a decade now) from someone who knew Hawking damned him with praise over how much he focused his attention inward, neglecting some of the physical therapy and other things he might have done to at least slow the progress of the disease, because, after all, someone else will take care of the meatbag needs of the physical body. It was catty, but delivered in such a wide-eyed, admiring tone that the content of the message was at least partially disarmed.

There, I am now the person picking on the guy in the wheechair.
posted by adipocere at 11:22 AM on April 26, 2010


Newton had a poor reputation for playing with other academics β€” see Leibniz and calculus β€” behaving as a covetous, credit-grabbing person who was loath to admit his mistakes. Kip Thorne has made "read-between-the-lines" comments, in person, about how much of the work for which Hawking is known might be better attributed to him. He is not the only one.

I have no idea what, if anything, Hawking might have stole from Thorne. But what credit exactly are you implying Newton grabbed from whom? Not calculus from Leibniz, surely.
posted by DU at 11:34 AM on April 26, 2010


Hawking is still publishing, mostly with his student Thomas Hertog. Purely in citation terms (which gives an idea of his impact on the literature and how much other scientists are reading his output, which is not all there is to science), his career has been fairly significant. He has a H-index (which is intended to reward sustained broad impact, rather than a few highly cited discovery papers) of about 70. This means he has 70 papers which have been cited more than 70 times. This is not an outlier (see below), but it's perhaps what you'd expect for a very successful career slowed down by very serious health issues. He hasn't published much significant work (again, in terms of citations) since 2001 though (which is not surprising, given his age as well as his health). In comparison, Ed Witten, who I think a lot of theoretical physicists consider the most successful physicist since the 1970s, and who works in a similar field to Hawking in terms of publishing culture, has a H-index of about 120 (higher is better). Martin Rees's is about 95 and Steve Weinberg's is about 90. Both are younger than Hawking. Weinberg and Rees have had considerable success as a popularizer, so it's not like the physics community turns it's back on you if you have the temerity to explain what we do to the outside world.

In terms of how the community perceive Hawking as a popularizer of science, I don't actually know that many people aged 30 or younger who've read BHOT. It's hopelessly out of date. That's not his fault, of course. But my opinion, which I've heard expressed by other astrophysicists, is that BHOT is a terribly obfuscatory book.

But as this thread suggests, when he is discussed, it's usually as gossip.

Re: Freeman Dyson's "climate modelling skepticism", he's something of a dilletante, but he's coming at it from a completely respectable, scientific direction. The debate that followed in the letters pages of the NYRB was civil, credible and extremely illuminating. He may not have published his own work in peer-reviewed journals for some time, but I know he keeps up with the literature, and he is not seen as having gone off the rails any scientist I know. Also, the dude is 86 years old.
posted by caek at 12:04 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Self-correction: Rees (67) is a few months younger than Hawking (68), Weinberg is a few years older (73), and Witten is much younger (51).
posted by caek at 12:08 PM on April 26, 2010


Freeman Dyson's "climate modelling skepticism", he's something of a dilletante, but he's coming at it from a completely respectable, scientific direction.

Nor did I mean to imply otherwise, and perhaps I should have made that more clear. In all of the cases I mentioned above, the scientists in question were attacking problems or using techniques that, while outside of the mainstream, were still intellectually interesting and respectable; Hawking's speculation on extraterrestrial civilizations, it seems to me, falls into this category. I don't think that any of them, including Dyson, were/are seen as having gone off the rails.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:37 PM on April 26, 2010


I don't know what this is about, but if it's panspermia/exogenesis it's not that weird or dumb.

well, it's just a turtles all the way down answer, and adds more problems than it solves (extremely harsh climate, scarce resources, etc)...
posted by mdn at 2:09 PM on April 26, 2010


well, it's just a turtles all the way down answer...

Not exactly. It means that if life turns out to be fantastically unlikely to get going, it would only have to happen one time per N planets (for potentially very very large N), not one time per planet.
posted by DU at 4:30 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


« Older Heeeeere's ShadePlant! How to better conceal my...   |   β€œIn Boston they ask, how much does he know?" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.