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The Genius of Stephen Hawking and the Politics of Scientific Discovery

18 Jun 2018

Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles considers the genius of Stephen Hawking and his insights into the politics of scientific discovery.

Earlier this year we learned with sadness of the passing-away of Cambridge theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking.

Of the many tributes that have been offered, a great number described him as a “genius”. Of that there can surely be no doubt. And yet, I wonder if this term and its appropriation within contemporary society is worth exploring.

The perception of Hawking as a “genius” has been framed by sympathetic awareness of the facts surrounding his life, namely, that his work was carried out in spite of the degenerative muscular condition that gradually caused him to become paralysed over the decades, in the end rendering him almost incapable of using his body to communicate the ideas being formulated in his head. Hawking thus came to represent the idea of “a mind without a body”. To use a more philosophical register, we might say that Hawking was emblematic of the idea of the disincarnated Cartesian “self”—singular, individual and apparently fully rational. As Amanda Gefter wrote in The Atlantic: “there’s just something about a guy who speaks in a computer voice that automatically makes him sound like a genius”.

Hawking’s “genius”, perceived in these terms, corresponds rather closely to the understanding of science held in the media and in the popular imagination, namely, that scientific discovery takes place in moments of epistemological rupture, driven forward by the brilliance of individuals who contemplate nature in splendid isolation. Hawking can now be added to this pantheon. It seems appropriate to note that he died on the very day of the 139th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein and that, last week, following his cremation, his ashes were interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, alongside the grave of Sir Isaac Newton and close to that of Charles Darwin.

The conceptualisation of Hawking as a “genius” in these terms was examined in a 2012 book by French social anthropologist Hélène Mialet. Her study showed the extent to which Hawking’s academic work and research, his output, was in fact enmeshed in an assemblage of machines, technological devices and human support networks, to such an extent that his “genius” might more appropriately be described as “HAWKING incorporated”. For Mialet, contrary to the popular imagination, Hawking’s “genius” was actually a dispersed and multiple phenomenon. And, as she goes on to argue, this is what constitutes the rationality of all scientific endeavour, properly understood.

We live in a moment where science is expected to do so much for us. And yet, at the same time, misunderstandings abound regarding the mode of rationality in which it actually operates. As Bruno Latour puts it, we labour under the myth of “the transcendent origin of facts” (We Have Never Been Modern, p.22). And so, when the immanent, collective and messy reality of scientific activity is revealed to us, even for a moment, confusion ensues.

This was demonstrated by an incident that occurred a few years ago that, we are told, caused Professor Hawking some distress when he read about it in the news. This was the ‘Climategate’ scandal of 2009. When the Email server of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia was hacked, thousands of communications between laboratory scientists working at the unit were published, laying bare the disputes and controversial interactions that took place between them regarding their interpretation of the data pertaining to climate change. As is now well-known, this caused some climate denial lobbyists to claim that the scientific modelling of global climate change that was produced by the CRU was an act of manipulation. The point, however, is that it was precisely in and through these collective networks—the controversy, the disputation, the passing-around of ideas and wrangling over what they signified—that the authority of its science resides. What we should be looking for is not so much an individual “genius” able to declare the meaning of things from above, but something more like a construction site comprising different voices and contributions, out of which something permanent emerges, that is, real science.

This is why our understanding of science can be fertilised by our understanding of how other modes of collective human behaviour function, whether political, social or religious. This is not to reduce science to something else. Rather, it is to offer insight into the processes through which science has to pass in order to be what it is. With this, the territories of “science” and “religion” might be re-ordered somewhat, for the benefit of all.

Hawking himself objected to the word “genius,” it seems. When asked by a college student in 1993 how it felt to be labelled “the smartest person in the world”, he reportedly began typing rapidly. “It is rubbish, just media hype”, he reportedly said. “They just want a hero, and I fill the role model of a disabled genius […] I am disabled, but I am no genius.” Perhaps it is in statements like these that his insight into the world is most apparent.

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