On the death and birth of two geniuses: Hawking and Einstein

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Stephen William Hawking died Wednesday morning in Cambridge, England at the age of 76. He was without question the best-known scientist of his time. That was not necessarily because of his prowess as a scientist—the future will judge how right or wrong he was about the various aspects of cosmology that he studied. It was rather because he achieved celebrity status through his efforts to popularize cosmology, displayed a demolition derby-style personality that appealed to many, and the fact that his illness (a rare early-onset but slowly progressing case of ALS—“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) made him instantaneously recognizable across the intellectually sentient parts of the globe.

It was and remains inevitable that Hawking was often compared to Albert Einstein, who was born exactly 135 years ago. My guess is that not a single one of the hundreds of obituaries that will appear soon about Hawking will fail to mention Einstein in one way or another. That is probably because Einstein is the only other cosmologist that most non-scientists have ever heard of; Niels Bohr comes in a very distant second. Indeed, Hawking’s nickname as a youth was “Einstein.” But there is more to it than that.

First of all, everything that Hawking studied he studied on the basis of what Einstein had established before him: General relativity theory is what enables anyone today to speak about singularities, “big bangs,” space-time relationships, black holes, and still-elusive unified field theories of physics, among other highly esoteric things. Hawking was at the forefront of these fields for years, so appropriately enough, in 1978 Hawking received the Albert Einstein Medal.

And not that it matters much, probably, but both Einstein and Hawking had difficult relationships with women. Einstein was married twice, once divorced, and infidel throughout both marriages. Hawking was twice married and twice divorced.

But it is the differences between Hawking and Einstein that are more noteworthy. For all his genius, Einstein’s demeanor was humble; Hawking’s was not. He was frequently brash and aggressive, personality traits some detected early on. His crew coach, back when Hawking was still young and before his disease was manifest, said that as a coxswain Hawking cultivated a daredevil image, steering his crew on risky courses that led to damaged boats. Throughout his career as a scientist he postulated confidently several theories that turned out to be wrong. He might have just posed questions for research, like other world-class scientists do, but you don’t get to be a celebrity that way.

Most famously, Hawking argued emphatically in 2002 and again in 2008 that the so-called Higgs boson would never be found, and he picked an acrimonious public fight with the originator of that concept, Peter Higgs, in the process. The particle was found in 2012. Around the same time, in 2005, Hawking argued, on the basis of what can only be described as a religious faith in quantum theory, for total information loss in the evaporation of black holes—a notion he later called his “biggest blunder.” To his credit, he was a man who could admit error (when he had to), but it was the way he erred, not the errors themselves, that annoyed many colleagues. Said Higgs during their argument, Hawking’s “celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have.” That was correct.

Hawking’s tendency toward arrogance carried over into fields in which he was not expert. For example, he once remarked that “philosophy is dead” because philosophers have not kept up with scientific advances. Moreover, he contended that philosophical problems can be answered by science, particularly new scientific theories that “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it.” Can anyone imagine Einstein saying anything so foolish? The idea that physics subsumes philosophy, or ever can—that they are even about the same things—is a category error redolent of primitive positivism, the belief that whatever isn’t material doesn’t matter or exist.

The same notion returned repeatedly in Hawking’s way of speaking about the concept of a Creator, or God. At one point, Hawking did not rule out the idea of a Creator, and over the years he often spoke of God as a way of wrestling with concepts of cosmic causality. But in the end he pronounced himself an atheist who believed neither in God nor in any heaven or afterlife. Again, the contrast with Einstein’s sense of spirituality is stark.

Einstein was a kind of determinist. He said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and he became a critic of quantum theory as a necessarily incomplete account of the universe. He did not argue with the fact of human freedom in time or dispute apparent contingency, but he viewed time as a kind of epiphenomenal illusion. Hawking, on the other hand, insisted on contingency: “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” As great and creative a scientist as Einstein was, he was also philosophically tutored and deep. Hawking more often sounded like the extrusion of a dorm room bullshit session on subjects like these, using his genius aura to lend credibility, as Higgs said, to statements beyond his areas of mastery.

The same goes for politics. Einstein was a pacifist, and he quietly wrote essays and letters attesting thereto: Einstein on Peace, published by Random House in 1981, brings those essays together under one cover. But Einstein was deeply uncomfortable with fire-in-the-belly forms of political expression and activism, no doubt because he saw with his own eyes the destruction caused by such emotion projected into politics. That was no doubt one reason why Einstein declined the very high-profile political offer of becoming Israel’s first president. Not so Hawking, who was a garden-variety British leftist. As a youth he protested the Vietnam War, and as a mature adult called the invasion of Iraq not an error but a “war crime.” He supported the academic boycott of Israel, and endorsed Jeremy Corbyn as Labor Party leader.

Of course, this only goes to show, both in Einstein’s case and especially in Hawking’s, that being a brilliant physicist, cosmologist, or mathematician does not make one a good judge of political matters. Other examples unfortunately abound. J.B.S. Haldane, another famous British scientist and science popularizer in the generation before Hawking, turns out to have been a great fan of Joseph Stalin and a Soviet agent. Political judgment doesn’t get much worse than that. Alas, intelligence is not monolithic; it comes in several flavors.

That Hawking had a powerful mind is beyond debate or dispute. That he was brave to persist in his career and in his quest for discovery despite the physical limitations he suffered cannot be denied. Lesser men would have rolled over, given up, and died. That he was an effective popularizer of science is much to his credit. But what his life illustrates best, perhaps, is the formidable power of Western science.

Hawking was supported throughout his life by a series of institutions, in his native Britain, in America, and in the West generally, that tower over those of any other contemporary civilization. Science is not a thing; it is not a collection of facts or even a body of knowledge. Science is a process, and it is a collective human process. It depends ultimately on a broader culture that respects its ambitions, nourishes its norms, and rewards its achievements. Hawking lived within a community of scientists, and without that community he could not have pursued his quest. Even when he was wrong, he was not wrong for long most of the time because the community in which he lived provided the necessary corrections—just as Hawking at times provided correction for others.

There is a larger lesson in this observation. The cultural norms and institutional arrangements that enable high-powered science are not built in a day, and neither are they destroyed in a day. And those norms and institutions are in a sense nomadic. There were ages, now many centuries ago, when other cultures excelled in science at a time when Western societies were drowning in superstition, child-like magical thinking, and other forms of barbarism and inanity.

What this shows is that there is nothing inherently brilliant or stupid about any particular group of people on this planet. Only a fool thinks that superior achievement in science is somehow either inevitable or impossible in any given cultural zone. Scientific sophistication rises and falls over time in ways and for reasons no one completely understands, but one thing does seem clear: Hubris and self-abnegation are equal and opposite errors when it comes to any society’s hopes for science. That is perhaps a lesson to remember on every March 14 going forward—the date of both Stephen Hawking’s death and Albert Einstein’s birth.

This article was originally published by Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center.