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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Stephen Hawking Wastes His Time with the NYT

Stephen Hawking is the most well-known physicist in the world. He also has ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. I cannot understand Hawking's work. I tried to read his best selling book, A Brief History of Time: From Big Bang to Black Holes. I did not get through or understand the first chapter. How an estimated 10 million other people who bought the book, and I presume understood it, is a mystery to me. For some time now, Hawking has been totally paralyzed. Like others with ALS and those with motor neuron disease he communicates via a computer. Communication is slow and labor intensive. Hawking gives few interviews for this reason. I think Hawking is wise for the NYT interview published recently was dreadful. Apparently Hawking is "one of the longest living survivors of ALS, and perhaps the most inspirational". I should have stopped reading here as the interview just got worse as it progressed. The interview was different. It was "a kind of interview". The interviewer sent Hawking's daughter a list of ten questions before the interviewer and Hawking met. At the interview Hawking played his answers to the interviewer. Given how Hawking communicates this seems logical. Rather than see the logic in this means of adaptive communication the interviewer noted "despite the limitations, it was Dr. Hawking who wanted to do the interview in person rather than by email". How dehumanizing. How rude. No wonder Hawking does not give interviews. He is too busy and too famous to waste his time answering stupid questions.

The interview itself was based on a lecture Hawking gave at Arizona State University entitled "My Brief History". Hawking rarely comments about his disability and I suppose that is what made his lecture and this interview of interest. He did mention his disability--he had no choice really. One question stunned me. The interviewer asked "I don't mean to ask this disrespectfully, but there are some experts on ALS who insist that you can't possibly suffer from the condition. They say you've done far too well, in their opinion. How do you respond to this kind of speculation?" This question is not only rude but point blank disrespectful. What is he supposed to say, sorry I did not die in the expected time frame for others with ALS. How about I am not suffering I have a medical condition. Or how about not asking a question based on baseless speculation. I will give Hawking credit though his reply was polite. I doubt I would have been nearly as nice. He noted in part: "I don’t have much positive to say about motor neuron disease. But it taught me not to pity myself, because others were worse off and to get on with what I still could do. I’m happier now than before I developed the condition. I am lucky to be working in theoretical physics, one of the few areas in which disability is not a serious handicap".

The second question asked was simply patronizing: "Given all you've experienced, what words would you offer to someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, perhaps ALS." Sure let's reduce the world's best physicist to his disease, you know the one he "suffers" from. Again, Hawking was polite. He answered: "My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically."

The remaining questions concerned his work and were entirely appropriate. The final question was spontaneous--asked when they met. The interviewer asked: I don't want to tire you out, especially if doing answers is so difficult. But I'm wondering: The speech you gave the other night here in Tempe, My Brief History, was very personal. Were you trying to make a statement on the record so that people would know who you are? The answer "after five minutes I hope my experience will help other people". Does the interviewer really need to let readers know it took five minutes to provide a single sentence answer. No, it was done to prompt an emotional reaction--pity.

This sort of interview is so frustrating to me. What an opportunity was lost. I can think of many questions to ask Hawking who strikes me as a private person. To the best of my knowledge he rarely if ever answers questions about his disability. Now I know why. Like any other human he does not want to be pigeon holed according to a preconceived notion or type. He is not an inspiration to me or any other person with a disability. He does not advocate for disability rights as far as I know. Not every person with a disability wants to do this. His passion is physics. He is a physicist. Hence I admire Hawking's work not the man. His disability is not relevant in any way. If I had a hero it would be a person like Ed Roberts who advanced disability rights. Sadly, no one outside of the disability community even knows who Roberts was. Now this is a problem worth addressing instead of asking inane questions directed at a world famous physicist.


Becs said...

For a long time, Hawking had a graduate student or junior professor working with him when he was in public. I think that person served not just as an interpreter but as a body guard as well.

I've picked up "Brief History of Time" and I hacked my way through it. There might have been one glimmering second when I believed I saw what he was writing about, but it was probably just a reflection from a passing car window.

Anonymous said...

I just loved _A Brief History of Time_! I could have done with a few more equations, but then, I'm an audio engineering student, I like physics, & I'm weird. Audio engineering requires huge stacks of physics and piles of beautiful, useful equations. I love scientific equations, especially in theoretical & astrophysics.
Did you know that in Star Wars, when the Death Star blew up, it actually shouldn't have made any sound at all? Outer space is a vacuum, & consequently, there is no medium through which the sound waves could travel, so there would have been no sound at all.
This book is snow coming down as silver sparkle. It is sunlight gleaming through a rainbow. It is moonlight glittering on a dark river. I would also recommend, for anyone who liked the aforementioned book, _Space-Time & Beyond_, by Bob Toben & Fred A. Wolf, _The God Particle_ by Leon Lederman, & _The Elegant Universe_ by Brian Greene.
To understand physics, particularly electro-magnetics, explains how a guitar can speak, but not why it is often so eloquent.