Stephen Hawking

This week we heard the sad news that Professor Stephen Hawking has died. Media are full of praise for his achievements in his work in cosmology and for his life of survival against all medical odds. Besides his immense scientific reputation, he has achieved a degree of public recognition way beyond other scientists, including appearances in The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons and Futurama. There was much respect and affection in his public recognition, and an acceptance that because he was so brilliant we must accept his utterances, even if they sometimes strayed far from cosmology – indeed perhaps especially when they strayed, because then there might be a chance to understand what he was saying. All of this is well deserved, and as a physicist I stand in as much respect of him as anybody.

It does a disservice to his achievements, however, if we allow his pronouncements to become a new orthodoxy. He started his career in cosmology by challenging orthodoxy, thinking completely outside the box, and imagining unthinkable new physics. That is exactly how science progresses, and scientists will strenuously challenge his legacy to try to achieve what he, along with Isaac Newton and many other physicists, have attempted but not yet achieved: the unification of all forces into one theory. Scientific theories must always be challenged, extended, replaced and tested if progress is to be made, and the current understanding of Black Holes and the Big Bang are no exception.

Many will have heard his account of the two most valuable lessons he has left for his children:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet; and never give up work, work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.”

While the first lesson is beautiful and a fitting epitaph for this great man, I would question the second lesson. I work really all that life is about? Is the life of a person who cannot work, or cannot find work, meaningless? Isn’t there more meaning in relationships, in love, in beauty, is aspiration, and in human kindness? I recall someone saying that on their deathbed nobody says “I wish I had worked more”, but far more say “I wish I had loved more”. So maybe this is a sad lesson from a man who looked too long at the stars.

Another announcement for which Hawking is famous, in the Grand Design, is that the Big Bang was the inevitable result of the laws of physics, and we do not need to invoke God to trigger the Big Bang. Many may hear this as saying that we do not need God, that the laws of physics explain everything, but that would be to give the statement authority way outside Hawking’s field of expertise. He may well be right that the known laws of physics can produce solutions that look like Big Bangs, but that then begs the question of where those laws of physics come from. Are those laws of physics replacing God? Perhaps rather those laws of physics are God. This is supported by Hawking’s earlier statement in A Brief History of Time, that “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.” He also said that “If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions” but he offers no basis for this conclusion about the nature of God, so this is at least open to challenge. Perhaps the laws of physics are one aspect, or incarnation, of God, while other aspects appear in a more personal knowledge of God.

So let us honour a great man who has challenged much and achieved great things, but let us value human lives not for how hard they worked, but for how they aspired and loved and helped others. And let us not understand science of any sort as replacing God, pushing him back into odd corners as a “God of the gaps”, but as part of the endless human endeavour to understand our world, our universe, our very selves as glimpses into the mind of God.