Study Guide

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking Essay - Critical Essays

Hawking, Stephen

Introduction

Stephen Hawking 1942–

(Full name Stephen William Hawking) English cosmologist, mathematician, author, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Hawking's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 63.

Hawking is considered one of the most influential and important theoretical physicists of the twentieth century. His theories on black holes and his search for a grand unification theory, which would link the theories of relativity with those of quantum mechanics, have propelled him into the scientific ranks of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. He has attracted widespread public interest through his best-selling work A Brief History of Time (1988).

Biographical Information

Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. His father was a research scientist specializing in tropical diseases and his mother was a secretary; Hawking was the first of four children. He received a first-class honors degree from Oxford in 1962 and proceeded to Cambridge University to pursue graduate studies in cosmology. In 1965, he completed his dissertation on black holes and received his Ph.D. He received a fellowship in theoretical physics at Cambridge and continued his work on black holes. At the age of thirty-two, Hawking was named a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1978 he received the Albert Einstein award of the Lewis and Rose Strauss Memorial Fund, the most prestigious award in theoretical physics. The next year he was named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position he continues to hold and one which was once occupied by Newton. While a student, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a degenerative disease of the nerve cells that control muscular movement. Hawking eventually became unable to move except for his fingers, and in the early 1980s he also lost the ability to speak; he now communicates with the aid of a talking computer. Hawking married linguist Jane Wilde in 1965; the two later divorced and he has since remarried. Hawking has three children from his first marriage.

Major Works

Hawking first gained recognition for his doctoral thesis concerning black holes, on which he collaborated with Roger Penrose, a mathematician. Hawking and Penrose demonstrated the validity of black holes, which scientists had previously been reluctant to acknowledge due to a lack of empirical evidence or mathematical proof. Hawking later suggested that some subatomic particles and radiation could escape from a black hole, summarized in his famous statement, "black holes ain't so black." In his most popular work, A Brief History of Time, which reached the best-seller list in both America and Britain, Hawking related the discoveries and implications of his lifetime of work. Written for the layman, A Brief History of Time offers a survey of historical and modern developments in physics, addresses various cosmological theories, and relates Hawking's quest for the unification of physics. Hawking followed A Brief History of Time with Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1993), a collection of essays and speeches which provide an overview of his scholarship as well as insight into his physical disability. The Nature of Space and Time (1996), which explores general relativity quantization, is drawn from a series of lectures Hawking and Penrose presented in Cambridge in 1994.

Critical Reception

Most of Hawking's writings are highly technical and understandable only to a small, highly specialized audience. Accordingly, general-readership reviewers have reacted most strongly to his works aimed at a popular audience. A Brief History of Time has been widely acclaimed as a clear, informative, and entertaining introduction to complex ideas that have significantly challenged traditional scientific and metaphysical views of the cosmos. Jeremy Bernstin stated, "The most original parts of Hawking's book consist of the descriptions of his own work. Since this has been of such great importance in modern cosmological theory, and since he describes it so lucidly, this gives the general reader an opportunity to learn some deep science directly from the scientist." Hawking's overall scholarship and theories also receive praise from his peers, but some debate certain elements of his work. Some philosophers have criticized Hawking's cosmology—his interpretations of the impact that his scientific theories have on religion and the origins of the universe. John Leslie defended A Brief History of Time, arguing that "the book's central ideas made it of greater philosophical interest than almost all the volumes ever written by philosophers," but conceded that Hawking's arguments "are highly oracular." Michael Rowan-Robinson, however, said of The Nature of Time and Space, "This elegant little volume provides a clear account of two approaches to some of the greatest unsolved problems of gravitation and cosmology."

Principal Works

The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time [with G. F. R. Ellis] (nonfiction) 1973
General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey [editor; with Werner Israel] (essays) 1979
Three Hundred Years of Gravitation [editor; with Israel] (essays) 1987
A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (nonfiction) 1988
Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: A Reader's Companion [editor] (nonfiction) 1992
Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (essays) 1993
The Nature of Space and Time [with Roger Penrose] (nonfiction) 1996

Criticism

Bryce DeWitt (review date 16 November 1973)

SOURCE: "Much-Esteemed Theory," in Science, Vol. 182, No. 4113, November 16, 1973, pp. 705-06.

[In the following review, DeWitt states that The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time is a masterpiece but laments that it is primarily for mathematicians and not physicists.]

Ask a prospective graduate student in theoretical physics what area he hopes to work in, and the chances today are better than 50-50 that he will reply "gravitation theory." This has caused problems for some physics departments, but it shows where the action is—or at least where many students think the action is. This prejudiced reviewer happens to think the students are right—in that the theory of gravity poses some of the most challenging conceptual problems in physics, problems that touch the foundations of nearly all physical theories. The students are simply expressing a gut awareness of the fact.

The theoretical framework for gravitational research has remained unaltered for nearly 60 years. Although proper attention, both experimental and theoretical, has been given to alternative theories, the theory is still Einstein's general relativity, as it was in 1916. The remarkable stability of this theory may fairly be attributed to the extreme practical difficulties one encounters in attempting to devise crucial experiments to challenge it. The challenges it faces today have mostly been devised from within, slowly and with many false starts, by men and women who were willing to gamble (and in some cases throw away) their professional careers by studying the internal consistency of general relativity and elucidating, with pencil, paper, and computer its many fantastic predictions, most of which Einstein himself never knew.

[The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time] by Hawking and Ellis contains a canonical sampling of these fantastic predictions, as well as a full and rigorous account of the chinks in the armor of the theory, which have been uncovered in the past decade. As a fundamental physical theory general relativity is a failure. It is a failure because it predicts that, under very generalconditions, singularities must occur in space-time, beyond which the theory is incapable of saying anything. That is, the theory predicts that it cannot predict. It is not fundamental enough. It must eventually be superseded by something more universal.

This is an old story in physics: Classical electrodynamics, hydrodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum field theory are all examples of theories whose incompleteness can be shown on internal grounds alone. (Think of point charges, shock waves, phase transitions, and quantum field theoretical divergences) But these theories by virtue of their overwhelming utility and beauty are still part of our standard curriculum, and we think none the less of them for their failings. Neither do we demote general relativity in our esteem. On the contrary, we see in the problems it presents to us only wonderful adventures for the future. The student who wishes to share in these adventures must master the material that Hawking and Ellis cover.

Beginning with a 50-page résumé of differential geometry in modern notation and a 20-page statement of general relativity theory as a set of postulates about a mathematical model for space-time, the book proceeds briskly to the construction of the tools needed for proving the main theorems. These tools include the theory of geodesics and conjugate...

(The entire section is 1446 words.)

Dennis W. Sciama (review date 8 February 1980)

SOURCE: "General Relativity since Einstein," in Science, Vol. 207, No. 4431, February 8, 1980, pp. 631-32.

[In the review below, Sciama remarks favorably on the essays collected in General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey.]

To celebrate the centenary of Albert Einstein Stephen Hawking and Werner Israel have gathered together 16 papers by leading authorities on general relativity. Their total impact is overwhelmingly powerful. Together they provide an outstanding modern account that covers all the important aspects: observational, mathematical, astrophysical, cosmological, and quantum mechanical. It shows very clearly that general relativity has come of age and...

(The entire section is 1302 words.)

Michael Harwood (essay date 23 January 1983)

SOURCE: "The Universe and Dr. Hawking," in New York Times Magazine, January 23, 1983, pp. 16-19, 53-9, 64.

[In the essay below, Harwood provides an overview of Hawking's life and works.]

The theoretical physicist, although he deals in such arcane, modern concepts as curved time and space, is part of a philosophical and spiritual tradition older than recorded history. He seeks to know not just life as he experiences it but how the hidden parts of the universe work and fit together. Ultimately he hopes to learn if and how and why the universe began and if and how and why it will end.

These questions and the new knowledge to which they lead are so far...

(The entire section is 7044 words.)

Leonard Parker (review date 20 May 1988)

SOURCE: "Newton Tercentenary," in Science, Vol. 240, No. 4855, May 20, 1988, pp. 1069-70.

[In the review below, Parker discusses the essays contained in Three Hundred Years of Gravitation.]

[Three Hundred Years of Gravitation] is a collection of 16 solicited contributions published in association with a Newton Tercentenary Conference held last summer at Trinity College, Cambridge, and summarizing the state of gravitation 300 years after the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia. The initial essays by Stephen W. Hawking and Steven Weinberg discuss Newton's greatest achievements. These include his development of the laws of mechanics, the universal...

(The entire section is 1270 words.)

Robert C. Cowen (review date 22 May 1988)

SOURCE: "The Cosmic Questions," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 80, No. 103, May 22, 1988, pp. 19-20.

[In the following review, Cowen praises A Brief History of Time but warns that understanding its ideas will require some effort on the part of the reader.]

"Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" These fundamental questions, which inspired Gauguin's famous picture, also give Stephen Hawking his theme. Gauguin expressed them in the imagery of painting. Dr. Hawking explores them through the concepts of physical science.

The great problem of being—its source, nature, and destiny or(to put it in physical terms) the origin,...

(The entire section is 1013 words.)

Jerry Adler (essay date 13 June 1988)

SOURCE: "Reading God's Mind," in Newsweek, June 13, 1988, pp. 56-9.

[In the following essay, Adler juxtaposes Hawking's brilliant career with his debilitating illness.]

Like light from a collapsing star, exhausted by the struggle against gravity, the thoughts of Stephen Hawking reach us as if from a vast distance, a quantum at a time. Unable to speak, paralyzed by a progressive, incurable disease, the 46-year-old British physicist communicates with the world by a barely perceptible twitch of his fingers, generating one computer-synthesized word approximately every six seconds, consuming an entire day in composing a 10-page lecture. And the world awaits the words, for...

(The entire section is 2829 words.)

Economist (review date 25 June 1988)

SOURCE: "Putting Infinite Space into a Nutshell," in Economist, Vol. 307, June 25, 1988, pp. 91-2.

[In the following review of A Brief History of Time, the critic states that while Hawking's theories are mind-boggling, his presentation is disappointing.]

When Stephen Hawking was diagnosed as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive wasting-away of the nerves that control body movements, his doctors gave him two years. Understandably, he stopped working on his PhD thesis. But at the end of two years, the disease had not progressed very far, and Mr Hawking had become engaged. He needed a job, so he needed a doctorate. That was 23 years ago.

...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Hubert Reeves (review date 21 October 1988)

SOURCE: "Universal Models," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4464, October 21-27, 1988, p. 1167.

[In the excerpt below, Reeves argues that while A Brief History of Time is well-written, Hawking fails to communicate that his ideas are based on assumptions which have yet to be proven.]

A Brief History of Time is a document, both scientific and human, about a man who has fought against a terrible illness (motor neurone disease) to become one of the leading figures in contemporary astrophysics. Stephen W. Hawking is well on his way to matching the popularity of Einstein among the general public. The book tells us about the evolution of his thinking, which...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Troy Organ (essay date July-August 1989)

SOURCE: "Dignifying Humanity," in Humanist, Vol. 49, No. 4, July-August 1989, pp. 29-30, 50.

[In the following essay, Organ considers the humor in Hawking's writing.]

Stephen Hawking dignifies our humanity. He was born in 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo—as he likes to note. When he was diagnosed as having the illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, he dropped his graduate studies to consider what to do. Insights into life and its possibilities came with meeting and marrying Jane and in begetting three children—Robert, Lucy, and Timmy. For the past twenty years, he has been confined to his wheelchair. He has little control over...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Scientific American (essay date October 1989)

SOURCE: "Cosmic Quarrel," in Scientific American, Vol. 261, October, 1989, pp. 22, 26.

[In the following essay, the critic discusses the theoretical disagreement between Hawking and philosopher Huw Price.]

Theoretical physicists, equipped with counterintuitive perceptions and a formidable mathematical armory, are considered by philosophers to be armed and dangerous. Their turf—however interesting—is usually avoided. Huw Price, a philosopher from the University of Sidney, belongs to a different breed. He has taken on Stephen W. Hawking of the University of Cambridge, one of the world's leading cosmologists. The rift developed over whether Hawking has, as he claims,...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

Chet Raymo (review date 6 April 1990)

SOURCE: "Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God," in Commonweal, Vol. CXVII, No. 7, April 6, 1990, p. 218.

[In the following review, Raymo suggests why A Brief History of Time has enjoyed such popular success.]

The longevity of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes on international best-seller lists is itself a phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation. As I write, the book has been on the American list for more than ninety weeks. For a work on relativity and quantum physics to achieve this distinction is unprecedented.

Hawking is a physicist with a particular interest in cosmology. He has achieved...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Gregory Benford (review date 7 June 1992)

SOURCE: "Master of the Universe," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 23, June 7, 1992, p. 11.

[In the following review, Benford surveys Hawking's life and work.]

When I first came to know Stephen Hawking in the 1970s, his speech was already nearly unintelligible to all but hisintimates. Yet with laconic humor he soon showed himself to be a complex man who refused to be treated condescendingly because of his slowly worsening "Lou Gehrig's disease." He could be funny, arrogant, pensive, unafraid to bluntly tell others they were wrong, speculative one moment and intricately precise the next.

This is the Hawking who shines through both these...

(The entire section is 983 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 28 September 1992)

SOURCE: "State of Mind," in New Republic, Vol. 207, No. 14, September 28, 1992, pp. 28, 30.

[In the review below, Kauffmann praises A Reader's Companion and the film inspired by Hawking's A Brief History of Time.]

Bantam has recently published A Reader's Companion to A Brief History of Time, edited by Stephen Hawking, and a companion it is—not to the book but to the documentary film of that title just released here. Hawking says in his foreword that "this is The Book of The Film of The Book. I don't know if they are planning a Film of The Book of The Film of The Book."

He can well be jocular: his joke is about a useful book about a...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Curt Suplee (review date 12 September 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXIII, No. 37, September 12, 1993, p. 6.

[In the excerpt below, Suplee contends that while Black Holes and Baby Universes is interesting, it adds nothing new to Hawking's theories in A Brief History of Time.]

If asked to list the cruelest disappointments of modern life, most folks will cite their first date, latest paycheck and page 134 of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

That is the point at which the fabled Cambridge physicist is just about to reveal his theory on the shape and fate of the whole confounded...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Economist (review date 6 November 1993)

SOURCE: "The Mind of Stephen Hawking," in Economist, Vol. 329, November 6, 1993, pp. 120-21.

[In the following review of Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, the critic states that the essays are repetitive and provide little insight about the author.]

Histories of 20th-century physics will surely have a place for Professor Stephen Hawking. So will histories of publishing. His work on the nature of black holes and the origin of the universe earned him the respect of other cosmologists. The descriptions of that work in A Brief History of Time earned him fame, record-breaking bestsellerdom, and stacks of money.

His new book is...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Sara Maitland (review date 20 November 1993)

SOURCE: "The Art of Giving," in New Scientist, Vol. 140, No. 1900, November 20, 1993, pp. 40-1.

[In the excerpt below, Maitland writes that Black Holes and Baby Universes is patronising and not rigorous enough in its explanation of science.]

About five years ago, partly because I wanted to write about dinosaurs in a novel, partly because of some theological questions, and partly because I had a curious child, I decided to learn more about science. It was not easy to find helpful books: a quick tribute here to Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), Paul Davies (for inter alia, The Mind of God), Keith Devlin (Mathematics; The New Golden...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

John Leslie (review date 12 May 1994)

SOURCE: "The Absolute Now," in London Review of Books, May 12, 1994, pp. 15-16.

[In the following excerpt, Leslie reviews Black Holes and Baby Universes and asserts that while he admires Hawking's work, the essays make contradictory arguments.]

After the enormous press coverage of A Brief History of Time, all the world knows that Stephen Hawking has motor neurone disease, can speak only with a computer-synthesised voice controlled by the few fingers that he can move, and fills the same Cambridge chair as Newton did. The 14 essays of the new book, together with a Christmas Day radio interview of 1992, form a very mixed bunch. They cover Hawking's early...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)

Michael Rowan-Robinson (review date 25 January 1996)

SOURCE: "On the Wilder Shores of Cosmology," in Nature, Vol. 379, No. 6563, January 25, 1996, pp. 309-10.

[In the following excerpt, Rowan-Robinson remarks favorably on The Nature of Space and Time.]

Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose are well-known both for their work on the nature of black holes and for successful books for the general public. The Nature of Space and Time has its origin in a series of lectures that they gave at a study programme in 1994 at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge. They outline their past and current work on the global causal structure of space-time, singularity theorems, cosmic censorship, the laws of blackhole dynamics, quantum...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

John Barrow (review date 16 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Battle of the Giants," in New Scientist, Vol. 149, No. 2021, March 16, 1996, pp. 48-9.

[In the following review of The Nature of Time and Space, Barrow states that the book's debate format works well and the author's theories are clearly explained.]

General relativity and quantum theory have always held a special fascination for physicists. They govern empires that appear superficially disjoint and rule their separate dominions with a precision unmatched by any other products of the human mind. The accuracy of Einstein's general theory of relativity, for example, is demonstrated by the spectacular observations of a pulsar engaged in a gravitational pas...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

Robert M. Wald (review date 7 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Quantum Gravitationists," in Science, Vol. 272, June 7, 1996, p. 1445.

[In the following review, Wald remarks that although The Nature of Space and Time may be "too technical for a layperson," most readers "should be able to enjoy the flavor of much of the discussion."]

The theory of general relativity was formulated in a mathematically complete form 80 years ago, and the basic principles of quantum theory were laid out about 70 years ago. Nevertheless, only within the past few decades have major efforts been under way to merge these theories into a mathematically consistent and complete quantum theory of gravitation. Despite these efforts, research in...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

John Preskill (review date July 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Nature of Space and Time, in Physics Today, July, 1996, pp. 60-1.

[In the review below, Preskill describes The Nature of Space and Time as "a succinct and clear technical account of the penetrating work and thought of two of our most brilliant and eloquent scientists."]

The clash between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein over the meaning of quantum theory greatly clarified some fundamental issues, but to this day it is widely felt that their differences have never been satisfactorily resolved. It seems most appropriate, then, for two leading physicists of the current era to carry on the debate, and who could be better qualified than...

(The entire section is 942 words.)