Wheels of Clay – Stephen Hawking
It’s no secret that Prof. Stephen Hawking is a “rock-star scientist”, as much as Einstein was in his day. Both have the reputation of being considered about the smartest people who’ve ever trod this veil of tears, even if only a few people can actually understand the substance of their contributions to science. Contributions which are substantial, whether understood or not by the public.
Hawking’s reputation is naturally enhanced by his tragic physical condition. Having a disease that slowly eats away at one’s muscular control, rending his body all but useless save for keeping his mind going, adds a definite mystique to him. We all know his story: having contracted the disease in 1963 at age 21 he was given a scant two years to live, a prediction that he’s outlived by 50 years.
As one of the special guests at this years Starmus Festival, it would be the third time I’ve seen him in person as he’s made several visits to Silicon Valley were I live. Two of his talks I’ve heard before, and while they were canned, he still actively selects each line and its associated visuals when on stage. Besides these talks he took part in a roundtable discussion on the nature of science and how it’s presented to the public. Joining him were other Starmus’ guests such as Apollo astronaut, Walt Cunningham, Nobel Laureates Harold Kroto and Robert Wilson (co-discoverer of the Cosmic Background Radiation that proved the Big Bang theory.
Partway through the session, Hawking jumped in with some comments regarding a topic from about 15 minutes earlier (as it took him that long to construct a response). While I forgot specifically what the topic was, he proceeded to give a lengthy and somewhat bizarre and very nasty anti-religious screed that seemed to have had little baring on the discussion. Okay, so in this crowd, one that hosted Richard Dawkins on opening day, I would expect some sort of “Christians are stupid” moment, but coming from Hawking it seemed wildly out of place and not to mention, poorly informed. Considering that only one person give a cheer (and a timid one at that), suggests that many others may have been as surprised as I was.
I had hoped to get a picture with him holding up the mascot of the 5th grade class I teach astronomy for. Now I really didn’t care. While I never regarded him as near science deity that others do, it still reminded me that one of the “smartest” people in the world is capable of saying really stupid stuff. And I wanted to tell him that.
Fortunately or unfortunately I didn’t get that chance, but I did pull his assistant aside the next and day and pointed out that my grandparents where missionaries to India in the ‘20s, and a 250-bed hospital today is a legacy of their labors. “They had measurably improved the lives of far more people then knowing what the first femtosecond of the universe was like.” Then I added “But I think we need both.”
In response she stammered that I must have misunderstood Dr. Hawking’s words, and countered that he does contribute a lot of funds to faith-based social organizations and the she herself was a Catholic.
I smiled and thanked her for her time, and asked if I could get a picture with him. She said, “certainly!” if we were able to meet outside of his schedule.
I never was able to get that picture. And I heard what I heard. And Dr. Hawking still deserves most of the plaudits granted him.
I really do hope to learn what the first femtosecond of the universe was like and Hawking and his intellectual descendants will no doubt be the ones to lift that veil and bravo to them!
But he’ll likely never build a hospital.