Monday, November 1, 2010

Stephen Hawking, Rock Star Physicist

There are not that many parallels one can draw between Keith Richards and Stephen Hawking.  They are both British, they are both in their sixties, and, uh, they are both from England.  One is a theoretical physicist, and the other uses his body as an ongoing experiment, in a cause and effect sort of way.  Keith Richards is a legendary rhythm guitar player, while Stephen Hawking is today’s leading Physicist, in terms of accomplishment and reputation.  Though you could not find two more different specimens, I would argue that both are rock stars.
Stephen Hawking is not a rock star in the traditional sense.  Sometimes, this term is used to describe someone at the top of his field, and Professor Hawking most certainly is.  What is more, the story of his life is intriguing, and he is world famous.  He has suffered from a neuro-muscular dystrophy known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since his early twenties.  He has spent the majority of his life confined to a wheelchair, and much of it without the ability to speak.  Despite the inevitable physical difficulties associated with his disease, Hawking used his mental prowess to have a profound effect on the world.  He is no James Brown, but he is, without a doubt, the Godfather of Black hole. 
What is perhaps more impressive than his long list of scientific distinctions, is his unique foray into pop culture.  He is openly proud of himself for having sold more books than Madonna; Hawking has sold more books than just about anyone not named J. K. Rowling.  Through what scheme has this theoretical Physicist managed to reach such a vast audience?  It turns out, there’s no scheme.  He simply takes what might be the most important and fascinating subject known to man, science, and makes it accessible to all who are interested.
There is only one Physicist that is on par with Hawking in terms of twentieth century fame, and that is Albert Einstein.  Indeed, these two Physics legends put their stamp on the science world with so much ink that it spilled into a much wider audience.  Even those who cringe at the subject of science can easily imagine Einstein’s wild white mane of hair, and are actually familiar with the equation: E = mc2.  Such folks are also likely to have heard of black holes, and are aware that the physicist who wrote the book on them communicates with a robotic monotone.   Einstein was the leading Physicist for the beginning of the twentieth century and Hawking carried that torch through to its conclusion.  What the two share, among other things, is a less than exceptional academic record; an encouraging fact for students who are struggling.
Stephen Hawking has interesting views on aliens: he suggests that we should avoid them at all costs.  Should they arrive here, they will likely be technologically superior to us.  It would be like when Columbus landed in America; an event that did not end well for the Native Americans.
Much more controversial are Hawking’s views on Religion.  He has stated that the laws of science may have been written by God, but that God never intervenes to break these laws.  Most recently, in his book, “The Grand Design,” Hawking states that God did not create the Universe.  A scientific law such as gravity shows that a Universe can grow from nothing.  Then, to leave no doubt as to what his viewpoint is, he said the following in an ABC newscast in 2010: There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”  Even when bands crank their amps to eleven, they do not cause the Earth to shake as much a statement such as this.
Professor Hawking is an inspiring man.  My students may find it hard to relate to, say, Isaac Newton, who did crucial work in the seventeenth century.  Hawking, who against all odds is still ticking today, has popularized Physics for this generation of students.  He is without question, a rock star physicist – just don’t ask him to carry a tune.

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