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Karl W. Giberson


The Guy in the Wheelchair

God & Stephen Hawking

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Editor's note: Science in Focus is on vacation in August, resuming our regular schedule in September. Meanwhile, we're going to the archives for science-related pieces from the pages of Books & Culture. This week we're featuring a piece by Karl Giberson from the September/October 2007 issue.

In my freshman astronomy class, filled with unwilling non-science majors unhappily meeting an unappreciated general education requirement, I show the PBS video series "Stephen Hawking's Universe." The script for the series was well done, the visuals engaging and enlivened by the occasional appearance of Hawking.

The six-part series and its companion text were not actually about Hawking and were just capitalizing on the cosmologist's rock-star stature. But some of his ideas were discussed—and, wherever possible, the director would arrange a shot of Hawking in his wheelchair, going to his office or scooting across a college campus somewhere, en route to a lecture.

To keep the students awake in a darkened room with reclining seats—and salvage some of the money their parents had ponyed up for their education—I made them write reports on the videos. One student, an aspiring filmmaker, reviewed the video series from a technical point of view as well as for the content I wanted them to learn. He expressed puzzlement about why the PBS director chose to have "some guy in a wheelchair repeatedly crossing the screen for no apparent reason."

The student obviously missed the point, but his question, enlarged, is still a good one. Why has "some guy in a wheelchair"—Stephen Hawking—been repeatedly crossing in front of us, most recently floating weightlessly in space sans wheelchair, for the past quarter century?

A Brief History of A Brief History

Hawking is the best-known physicist since Albert Einstein and one of the scientific community's rare celebrities. His signature work of science popularization, A Brief History of Time, has sold one copy for every 750 people on earth—an astonishing record; it has been translated into 40 languages and has turned its author into a major public figure, capable of filling large lecture halls and even getting multiple guest spots on The Simpsons, the ultimate measure of cultural cachet.

Hawking's extraordinary scientific mind resides in a tragically withered body rarely seen away from his ubiquitous high-tech wheelchair. When he appeared on The Simpsons his wheelchair was outfitted with a propeller that allowed him to fly away at will and a boxing glove on a spring enabling him to mechanically punch people.

A Brief History of Time gave currency to the idea that our universe had no "beginning." This bizarre-sounding claim actually fits with what we know about the origin of the universe, but we know so little about how our universe began that there are, in fact, many "compatible" speculations. Ignorance is consistent with a great many notions.

The argument in A Brief History of Time has an interesting theological spin that accounts for much of the book's enduring fascination. Eliminating the temporal beginning to the universe, says Hawking, rules out any role that God might have played in creating it. Carl Sagan, among others, found this notion delightful, exulting in his introduction to the first edition of the book that A Brief History of Time was about "God … or perhaps the absence of God."

God, of course, has a long association with modern cosmology, and many amateur theologians have waxed eloquent about the way creation connects to the well-defined beginning hinted at by the Big Bang theory. But there have also been theoretical models for the Big Bang without this interesting aspect. One such "no-beginning" idea exploded into broad circulation in 1988 when Hawking published A Brief History of Time. The book, while brief and without equations, was a challenging read. Nevertheless it appeared with something of a big bang itself and became a blockbuster of cosmic proportions.

The success of Hawking's book is itself an interesting story. How did this happen? How did a challenging book on an esoteric topic sell millions of copies? Colleagues began to wonder if they should jump on this newly respectable bandwagon of science popularization; publishers looked about eagerly for a piece of the new literary action. Spinoffs appeared, riding on the book's seemingly infinite coattails. A Reader's Companion appeared in 1992. Hawking wrote his own account of the book's success, "A Brief History of A Brief History," which appeared in Black Holes and Baby Universes, a short collection of essays published in 1993. A Briefer History of Time, described on the cover as "More Accessible, More Concise, Illustrated, and Updated with the Latest Research," appeared in 2005. Hawking's 2001 The Universe in a Nutshell, and a few edited volumes, complete his modest output of science popularization.

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