13 August 2012
The world’s most famous living scientist is portrayed as an archetypal lone genius. Could this be harming science, asks Hélène Mialet in Hawking Incorporated
HE IS a household name, and not just in scientific circles. As the world’s most famous living scientist, Stephen Hawking needs no introduction – whether appearing on late night chat shows or an episode of The Simpsons. But why?
In Hawking Incorporated, historian and philosopher of science Hélène Mialet sets out to answer this question, and in the process comes to some interesting conclusions about the way we perceive science and scientists.
This book is not a biography. Instead, Mialet says, it is an ethnography that inspects the way Hawking is used in popular culture to explain how we think about science. She argues that it is possible to understand how science is “made” through a detailed study of Hawking the man. But she also makes the case that to do so, we first need to take a closer look at Hawking the myth.
People often think that scientific knowledge is largely produced by a lone genius. If a solitary mind is all that’s required, the logical conclusion is that you barely need a body. Hawking is the poster child for that dualist philosophy: he is routinely characterised as not only transcending his disability to produce great knowledge, but of achieving his profound insights precisely because of it. He is the archetypal solitary genius, the Cartesian ideal of science. This, Mialet argues, is what makes him such an immediately recognisable ambassador for science.
Having laid out why Hawking is a custom-made science icon, Mialet then dismantles the myth of the disembodied genius. Hawking very much has a body, she reminds us, and in order to appear at lectures and produce papers, he relies on a coterie of helpers. The way he works reveals the invisible structures of science in general – all that rests on the overworked shoulders of graduate students, personal assistants and office managers.
The subtext, of course, is that this idea of science as inaccessible to all but a few geniuses is tremendously harmful. It’s not that it isn’t hard or that you don’t have to be extremely smart to pursue it as a career, but you can still be human. Science, Mialet insists, is not solely the product of individual, godlike minds.
Misleading representations of Hawking are not simply a problem for him, then, but for science itself. Individual scientists may benefit from the idea that they possess an ineffable quality beyond the reach of most humans, but science as a whole suffers. Could this reputation have something to do with the difficulty in places like the US of creating and retaining science and engineering talent?
Mialet’s exploration of these issues is not always a comfortable read. At times it feels rude and even seems to intrude into Hawking’s private life. Yet perhaps the discomfort of dismantling the myths that surround him stems from the fact that we already know the Stephen Hawking that we want to know.