Is Steven Hawking really all that?

Steven Hawking is possibly the most famous scientist living today. But much of that fame comes from the wheelchair & robotic voice, plus working in a “cool” field that everyone loves to wonder about (“The origins of the universe! Black holes! Parallel universes!”) IE, a lot of his work on black holes was with this other guy named Penrose, but most people have never heard of him.

So what about Hawking’s work? Did he do anything super brilliant and revolutionary? I know he’s done some work on black holes, but was any of it “OMG! NOBEL PRIZE WORTHY STUFF!” like Einstein did multiple times in his “year of miracles”, or was it like most other papers in the field – solid respectable work but nothing that would stand out from a thousand similar papers?

So judged only on his science – is Hawking really a serious candiate for “The Smartest Man Alive”? Or does he just have a good press agent?

I would say in between - that he’s not one of the once-in-a-few-generations breakthrough genuis like Einstein or Newton, but not ‘one of the crowd’ either - that he’s probably one of the four brightest stars in the field of physics alive today. (Not sure who the others would be.) Along the lines of Heisenberg or Shroedinger perhaps.

Also, I think that he’s reasonably well known for writing good books that aren’t ‘dumbed down’ but try to be acessible to the bright college-graduate level, instead of just papers that are mired enough in technical jargon that only people still active in the field can follow them.


No; he’s not

He get’s the attention because he’s in a wheelchair; and people find an attraction to that for numerous reasons.

I read his “Brief history of Time” it was terrible. It wasn’t easily understood; but all I heard about was how impressive it was that he was able to write about complex subjects and make them accessible to lay people…he failed at this…the readers I talked to just didn’t want to admit they couldn’t understand it for fear of looking stupid; or offensive to some one with his physical disability.

He does hold a VERY HIGH ranking position at the University; so I would class his great thinking powers and abilities with the average of the people who have held that position before…you know all those other people you’ve never heard about.

He’s a great star and thinker in the physics world; but your average person only knows about him because of his physical condition.

There you go; my opinion. I’m prepared for the onslaught of being uncaring, cruel, and generally a bad person because I don’t think Steven Hawking is the greatest since Einstein.

Ed Witten is as close to universally regarded to being the leading light in physics as anybody today.

Which means that physicists have heard of him and nobody else.

So what? Were Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Bohr, and the other QM geniuses well known in the 1920s? Not at all. Heisenberg and Schrödinger became somewhat familiar through popular science memes that were attached to their names, but certainly not for matrix mechanics and wave mechanics.

Richard Feynman, their successor, got famous very late in life when he wrote a popular autobiography.

Einstein’s fame was an accident. It took from 1905 to 1919 before he became a household name, and it happened then mostly because people were looking for new heroes after the disillusionment of WWI.

There’s only room in popular cultural thought for one famous name in physics. I can’t foresee any reason why that will change in our future. The next generation famous name will get famous for some other reason that pure physics.

So, yes, Hawking is a really good physicist, but not to that level. Is there anybody today the equal of Einstein? Maybe we’ll know in a couple of decades. I’ll still bet that 99+% of people won’t have heard of him or her then.

I’d say Penrose is easily the second most famous physicist alive today. Generally physicists aren’t rock stars.

I’m curious, Sigene, are you in physics? Or is your opinion based on the mainstream books that he wrote?

I suspect that his fame in the general population does in fact stem partially from his ALS, the fact that he’s continued to do work, write books, etc. all while outliving the life expectancy predictions based on his condition. Many people did also find his books illuminating, enough so that I think it’s fair to say that he met his goal (making relativity more approachable to people outside of the sciences).

But, as others will no doubt say shortly, he is also one of the important physicists in history. (I’d mention some names in the same league, but chrisk already did that.) I mean, how else would we be consoled by the fact that small black holes are probably going to evaporate if we accidentally create them…

He might not be Newton- or Einstein-important, but his work will likely be remembered in physics for centuries to come.

[Sigene’s post was the last one when I started writing this, so… what Exapno Mapcase said better than I did…]

Serious question: Was there a time when they were? Like, say, Sir Isaac Newton? I’ve heard that serious composers way back when were like rock stars, but when you had men on THE cutting edge of science – and yes, I know Newton had a lot of pseudo-science projects going on, too – were they widely paid attention to?

I heard of his books before I heard he was that guy in a wheelchair. I suppose the chair makes him more interesting, like Beethoven’s being deaf.

Sigene, I thought his books were about as dumbed down as they could be. Can you recommend authors that have dumbed his topics down better without coming away with no actual knowledge other than the universe is filled with glowy things that work magic?

No I can’t. My annoyance is more with the pseudo-intellectual types that think he is the greatest thing since Einstein.

I’m definitely NOT saying he’s not a brilliant scientist who deserves the scientific accolades of his peers. I’m saying he’s worshipped by the general public more than he deserves. And I suspect the reasoning for this worship has more to do with the public’s pity or guilt or fear of being seen as evil; than in his actual abilities.

I can think of 5 Ph.D. professor’s who I’ve had classes with, who can explain VERY WELL their specialty and research to untrained lay people. No one has asked them to write a popular book; and it would likely go unread because these are just common everyday professors with no attractive hook to give them a cult status.

I’m going to have to back out here; I’m too deep into humble opinion or great debate territory. Pit me if you want, but you can see I feel pretty stongly about it.

Ian Stewart, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Lawrence Krausss, Lee Smolin, Kip Thorne.

This is the Golden Age for top working physicists and mathematicians (and biologists, though that’s a different subject) writing popular books on string theory, cosmology, symmetry, and all the other cutting edge topics of modern physics. Lots of them are good, some are great, many are better than Hawking’s.

They’ve had PBS series, get invited to talk shows, appear on The Colbert Report, and generally are as famous as a working physicist can be except for the fluke event that catapults a person into the realm of celebrity. Hawking is a fluke celebrity. I think that’s great. He’s famous because of his mind and nothing else. What more can one ask for in a celeb? All physics is the better for him.

Thing is that although Hawking’s theorising may or may not cast a long lasting shadow over the world, he will be remembered. It’s not easy to write a book as readable as Brief History that deals with such difficult topics and his areas of expertise are really only open to criticism by a few of his peers, certainly way above my head and my degree is in Physics. Plus he’s been on Star Trek and The Simpsons!

In any case the fame of a scientist is often a capricious and fleeting thing - the triumvirate in physical sciences should be Newton, Maxwell and Einstein, but how often is Maxwell remembered?

This question, and some of the responses to it, are a bit absurd for a couple of reasons: for one, few people outside the professional domain of cosmology and quantum gravity are even qualified to make any worthwhile assessment of Hawking’s professional accomplishments. Another is that the value of most of Hawking’s contributions are still speculative and beyond falsifications at this point, lacking any practical application in the everyday lives of the population at large; his insights my be on the right track, or may be as badly off has Huygens’ luminiferous aether. Finally, with few exeptions, scientist-celebrities are rarely known for their actual accomplishments but rather popularized because of their charmingly eccentric personalities or ability to explain phenomena.

Einstein is a premier example of the latter; I daresay that not one person out of a hundred off the street could explain for what theory Bertie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, or the complete significance of Special and General Relativity, and the fact is after a few golden years he essentially contributed nothing of significance to the development of quantum mechanics or unified field theory, instead being far more effectual in the promotion of an Israeli state and proponent of world government. Dick Feynman was far better known to the public at large for being (as he described himself) “a curious character” and racounter than for his actual contributions to physics. (I’d give odds of 1:1000 that any given person could offer up a coherent layman’s explanation of quantum electrodynamics.) And perhaps the most well-known astronomer and planetologist in recent memory, Carl Sagan, actually contributed relatively little technically, his main achievements being in the popularization of the physical sciences and political advocacy of nuclear disarmament, whereas his former wife, Lynn Margulis (a name virtually unknown outside of microbiology and biochemistry circles) is virtually wholly responsible for introducing endosymbiosis, one of the most revolutionary theories in evolutionary biology and one the few legitimate challenges to modern evolutionary synthesis. Physicst Lisa Randall has made some insightful and unique contributions to cosmology and unification theory, but is probably most noted by the general public for being an attractive and articulate woman in a field dominated largely by men of peculiar habits and questionable social skills.

Even scientists who are legitimately known for real achievements have rarely performed those in isolation or exclusively; all of the components of Special Relativity were essentially in place, and had Henri Poincare been more organized, more social, and quicker on the draw he certainly would have been known as the founder of that field. Most of the hard mathematics for General Relativity was done by David Hilbert and his students. Issac Newton is most famously associated with the classical theories of mechanics and differential calculus but Gottfried Leibniz was far more accomplished in a wider array of fieldds, and ultimately more correct in concept, if less celebrated.

And there are many great scientists that do not receive wide recognition for one or more reasons: because they are not good popularizers, because their fields of research are too obscure or far afield from whatever fad pop-science culture is currently interested in, or because they just don’t seek any kind of celebrity. For what it is worth, I think that one of the smartest and most prolific guys working in gravitation today is Kip Thorne, who is at least known to attentive readers of popular science articles and books; another, virtually unknown in popular press, is James Hartle. Historically, how many people know the name of James Archibald Wheeler (one of the most prolific and influential mentors of physicists working in gravitation, atomic and subatomic physics, and quantum mechanics), J.B.S. Haldane (precursors to modern synthesis and much groundbreaking work on human physiology), or George C. Williams (evolution of sex and the gene as the fundamental unit of selection)?

This is hardly different from any other field which provides stars in popular consciousness, including acting (how many celebrities are actually great actors, and how many really great actors achieve great celebrity), politics, business, writing, et cetera? Fame is, virtually by definition, divorced from actual merit, and predicated only on the esteem that the person in question is held by the general public on the basis of some arbitrary combination of characteristics that makes the persona appealing or interesting.


The position he holds at Cambridge is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. The other people we’ve “never heard about” who earlier held the position include Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, and Paul Dirac.

Hawking achieved great fame in part because most of his early stuff was right on. He was able to find so much and make correct conclusions, it started to look like he was infallible.

Of course over the years, some of his stuff was right, some wrong and some reasoned out another way. Because so much of his sucesses were one after the other, it got him fame. Then the wheelchair and the admiration for a person who can achieve success despite a huge handicap (think Helen Keller).

And frankly he is one of the more “personable” scientists around. He can use that to his advantage. And this makes him useful in everday life, for instance Homer Simpson can say “You know that wheelchair guy.” and everyone knows and it’s funny. So if anyone needs to use the name of a smart guy, for the ever the reason they can say that.

There are certainly other people just as capable as Hawking, but he has other things too going for him, which add up to “all that.”

Thanks, Stranger for a clear and concise opinion on the subject. It’s posts like yours that make this board as unique as it is.
I’ve read Thorne, and can’t read any popular science book without reading about Wheeler. Two greats. Wheeler was the mentor of many scientists.

It’s a common error, but his name is spelt “Stephen”.

Yes, but also many people who most have never heard about.

**Bibliophage **got to that one first, but it’s a point well taken and alluded to in Stranger’s post.

Don’t forget Lt. Cmdr. Data.

You certainly seem to be getting hot under the collar about it, but I don’t see why it’s necessary to pit you. Where is this undue adulation that he receives?