Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking

I suppose I should say something about the death of Stephen Hawking, world renowned theoretical physicist, icon of science, in his late years celebrity atheist.  And, I would guess the reason most people have even heard of him, a very long surviving victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis whose intellectual achievements are a testimony to why even the most severely disabled peoples lives have meaning and, in the totally inadequate and, in this context, repulsive word for it "value". 

When he's come up in the news in recent years I've noted that Hawking's career as a public figure, a celebrity reminded me of Olympic figure skating, something which people ignore for four years only to figure they're expert enough to have a meaningful opinion of when they watch that ballroom dancing on skates, strongly held opinions that they have an emotional investment in on the basis of ignorance.   Hawking himself was among those who noted his most famous book, A Short History of Time, was probably one of the least read of books.   I remember a local Hawking fan, a man much older than Hawking who bought it and found within four pages that he didn't have the math and physics chops to read the book.  And he was probably in the top 5% of people in the country in math, though probably lower in physics.   I have never cracked the book because I figured it would be beyond me and I don't generally buy books just to buy them.

But I'm not going to make this about that because it's supposed to be about Hawking who I have to say I don't have very strong feelings about.  His very long and very well supported life and work in extreme disability I only have the highest praise for, along with that all important support, financial as well as personal support, especially by his dedicated nurses and wives and aids must have also required a good amount of courage which is entirely admirable.  It does make me wish that some of the stuff about atheism, aliens, colonizing space, etc. had been spent on getting more support for non-celebrity people with disability.   But he was free to make that decision, a person's life being theirs to do with what they think best is among the most important aspects of any struggle for civil rights and adequate material support.    It was his right to spend his life as he chose. 

I do think that even with his achievements in science he might figure as a pivotal figure at the end of what can be known through physics, as one of the key agents of bringing physics and, especially, cosmology into the period of decadence that Bertrand Russell predicted when he read Arthur Stanley Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World in the 1920s and realized that physics in the first two decades of the 20th century had demolished the materialism that Russell and many others in science believed in with all of the faith of a young earth creationist.   I'm still shocked when he along with  Leonard Mlodinow called for physics and cosmologists to do "science" without having it attached to verification in the physical universe, that writing equations should be considered as a sufficient means of arriving at truth without any verification that the various terms and relationships that they could balance on paper had any relation to actual objects in the physical universe, turning the "unreasonable effectiveness that Eugene Wigner marveled at in a famous article, into a moot point.  Taking the "nature" out of science.   That effectiveness, as demonstrated by experimental science is the only reason that science has any demonstrated effectiveness and is the sole reason that anyone has to believe in it at all.   Russell predicted something like the reversion into astrology which was, actually, something which came in the Renaissance which had been far less popular in the medieval period, would be the result of the "twilight of science"  which would seem to be a hall mark of the insertion of materialist ideology into science, one of the most successful extra-scientific pollutions of science in the 19th and 20th centuries.   What Russell thought was a guarantor of scientific validity has, actually, turned into a demand by such ideologues that the profession of science abandon verification in the natural world at all.   How a cosmologist creating universes out of numbers which will be exempt from rigorous observational verification in the natural universe differs from an astrologer doing the same thing on a much smaller scale is something I'd love to have someone explain.  If only I had smarter trolls.

Those polls they do of physicists as to who were and are the greatest physicists of all time usually contain Hawkings name, though I've never seen him ranked as high as the publicity surrounding him would lead the lay public to believe.   My guess is if it hadn't been for his disability and his working despite that he would be as obscure as other physicists and cosmologists who rank much higher on such lists.  I think it must have sometimes been annoying to him for being famous for things almost none of his fans understood - to a large extent he was famous for being famous, not for what he'd written.  I think that's what his descent into celebrity atheism was largely about.  Which is tragic but unavoidable in modern science.  Many of the most important discoveries in modern science are so complex that you can't begin to understand them even if you've specialized in a closely related field.  Try following the brawls among geneticists and you'll find yourself on a totally alien battlefield.   The same in the physical sciences.  I wonder if that ever frustrated him.

I hope Stephen Hawking was pleasantly surprised to find he was wrong about an afterlife, God and similar things.   That's something I hope awaits all of us.  I wish his soul well.   Maybe now he has access to those areas of time and the universe that physics can't reach.  It's probably the only real hope that a scientist can ever really know that because science only goes so far.  I hope he is happy about that.

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