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A new biography considers Stephen Hawking’s reputation while placing his work in context

Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity

Charles Seife
Basic Books
2021
400 pp.
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For decades, cosmologist Stephen Hawking was caught in a contradiction. In popular culture, he was portrayed as a pure mind roaming the cosmos to uncover fundamental truths of the Universe, the modern heir to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. In the physics community, he was respected as a productive theorist who made seminal contributions to black hole research, but many scientists considered his popular reputation to be ludicrously overblown. Veteran science writer Charles Seife seeks to resolve this contradiction in Hawking Hawking, the best biography yet published of the most famous scientist of recent decades. Seife presents Hawking as a complicated man and evaluates the cosmologist’s scientific legacy, both of which became obscured by decades of self-promotion, marketing, and mythmaking.

The popular-culture image of Hawking arose largely as a result of the success of his 1988 cosmology book, A Brief History of Time, which became an unexpected nonfiction blockbuster, selling more than 10 million copies. Hawking published the book with Bantam Books, as he wanted to reach the largest possible audience and to earn money, in part to pay for his daughter’s school fees.

As Seife recounts, Hawking was warned by a friend at Cambridge University Press, which had tried to acquire the rights to the book, that a trade publisher might highlight the scientist’s physical condition to market the book. This observation proved astute: The cover of the book’s US edition featured Hawking in his wheelchair, superimposed against a starry Universe, helping to fix Hawking’s image in the public imagination as a symbol of disembodied scientific rationalism.

This image was solidified through endless repetition by uncritical journalists and the marketing of Hawking’s subsequent books. But unlike those accounts, Seife’s portrait in this unauthorized biography is often unflattering. Hawking is represented as neglectful and dismissive of his first wife, Jane, who bore most of the burden of caring for her husband after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21. He comes across as having been reluctant to give due credit to his research collaborators. We learn that he erroneously accused (in print) two scientists of stealing an idea from his friend, physicist Andrei Linde, and lobbied (unsuccessfully) to the highest levels of the University of Cambridge to stop a student from pursuing a doctorate, because the proposed research topic would challenge his ideas. Far from floating in a cerebral realm, Hawking was actively engaged in the earthly business of protecting his intellectual capital.

As the author of several popular books on mathematics and physics, Seife is well positioned to determine Hawking’s specific scientific contributions and to judge their quality and impact. He situates Hawking’s work within the rich intellectual history of cosmology, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and has been referred to by physicist Kip Thorne as the “golden age of black holes.”

In this period, Hawking made what would become his signature contribution to cosmology. Contrary to the prevailing view at the time, he discovered that a black hole does not absorb everything in its vicinity. Instead, it emits a form of energy that would eventually be called Hawking radiation, the equation for which is inscribed on Hawking’s tombstone in London’s Westminster Abbey.

No lone theorist, Hawking collaborated with graduate students and physicists from around the world, and through his professional networks, he became a conduit between physicists in the East and West during the Cold War. Moreover, in Seife’s evaluation, Hawking’s research inspired a new generation of scientists and catalyzed the work of other physicists working on problems at the intersection of quantum theory and relativity.

The book’s subtitle—The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity—suggests that it is focused on the construction of Hawking’s stardom, but it is more accurately described as a successful attempt to rescue the complicated scientist from fame’s myriad distortions. Seife tells the story in reverse chronological order, starting with a description of Hawking’s tombstone and ending with his birth, a structure that invites the reader to see the man beyond the flashbulbs. Yet the biography’s main narrative is that of a fame-hungry physicist whose popularity grew over time, even as his greatest scientific achievements retreated further into the past. The book humanizes Hawking but reveals a tragic core to his celebrity.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of Communications, Dublin City University, Glasnevin, Dublin 9, Ireland, and is the author of The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).