Stephen Hawking's reputation

Is Stephen Hawking really all that and a bag of chips as a physicist, or is his reputation based primarily on the fact that he’s a good – or even darned good – thinker with dramatic physical limitations?

Certainly his popular fame is largely due to his success in the face of catastrophic physical limitations, but AFAICT his professional reputation is not. He seems to have been recognized as a brilliant original thinker even in his undergraduate days before being afflicted with ALS. And you don’t get elected to the Royal Society or appointed Lucasian Professor at Cambridge just out of sympathy.

Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man in a field of brilliant men and women. However, he really is exceptional, and not just because of his ALS. He came up with the theory of Hawking radiation, which, among a lot of his other work on singularities in general, provided enormous insight into black holes. He’s also a great popularizer of science, à la Carl Sagan.

He’s the real deal, with some exceptionally influential work, especially with regards to black holes, but also in a number of other areas such as singularities as well. He aso holds the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, which is the pinnacle of prestigous academic posts (it’s a chair once held by Isaac Newton), and which is not awarded frivolously.

The fact that he’s done everything he’s done with ALS (a condition he was actually expected to die from decades ago) is extraordinary, but he would would still be recognized, at least within his field, as the real deal even without the wheelchair and talking box.

I do think he might not be as well known to the public at large.

That makes sense – the general public only gets to know physicists by name if there’s some “hook” (like Feynman and his bongos).

Thanks, all.

He retired from the Lucasian chair last month. I think the biggest reason for his fame is the success of A Brief History Of Time. Hawking makes extremely complex scientific ideas- which would normally be well outside of the layman’s grasp- understandable.

I’m sure the paralysis is a part of it, but he’s widely considered the most intelligent person alive, and that would be the case even if he were physically normal.

See also Is Steven Hawking really all that? - Factual Questions - Straight Dope Message Board

Shoulda searched. :smack:

Interesting thread – thanks for the link.

Yeah, but I kinda like the “bag of chips” line :wink:

Calling him the most brilliant person alive is wildly over the top. He’s not even one of the top ten physicists of all time. It’s hard to say beyond that just how good he is. One claim I’ve seen is that he really isn’t even one of the top ten physicists presently alive. Others say that he is. At this level, that sort of statement is hard to evaluate one way or another. You don’t get grades showing how you rate compared with others in your profession. All you can do is ask a lot of physicists where they would put him compared with other physicists. Even that is iffy, since physicists study a diverse set of things, and they really aren’t qualified to evaluate people outside of their own speciality.

I saw a TV show where they asked a number of physicists whether Hawking deserves to be recognised as a new Einstein. The consensus was that he is a bona fide genius, but not Einstein level .

I didn’t call him the most brilliant person alive. I said he was widely regarded as such.

In the UK they are called crisps. Bag of crisps.

Unless, of course, you are comparing him to french fries (chips in the UK).

Hm, limp and greasy … nope, not my intent.

Sorry for the (unintended) offense.


I am completely unqualified to answer this question, but I think Hawking radiation is a pretty cool idea.

He’s not widely regarded as the most brilliant person alive either.

Who is widely regarded as the most brilliant person alive?

Me, of course. Pauly Shore is a close second.


Einstein in his day, perhaps (among laypeople, at least, I imagine).

But the point stands that one oughtn’t assign too much significance to such reputations.