IN MY VIEW: Where is Hawking’s Nobel Prize?

“Oh no,” I can just hear you all groaning! “Not another dense little book from an incredibly handicapped guy who can barely flick an eyelid to produce trenchant comments on a computer display so he can communicate with the rest of the world.” I’ll give you one guess as to who is the likely villain.

May 14th, 2012
Jeffrey Bairstow, contributing editor
Jeffrey Bairstow, contributing editor

“Oh no,” I can just hear you all groaning! “Not another dense little book from an incredibly handicapped guy who can barely flick an eyelid to produce trenchant comments on a computer display so he can communicate with the rest of the world.” I’ll give you one guess as to who is the likely villain.

OK, time’s up! The new book is Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, by Kitty Ferguson (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Yup, it’s another Stephen Hawking book, folks, this one timed to publish close to the date of his 70th birthday (in January of this year). But there’s one major difference with the preceding scholarly tomes. This book is not written by the eminent theoretical physicist himself. This is about the real life and times of Stephen Hawking and is a very readable book.

The 270-page volume is written by a native Texan, now transported to South Carolina, where she produces a steady stream of books and articles on the Great One and his Great Thoughts. Whereas I usually find Hawking’s books to be somewhat heavy going, this book proved to be an easy read. This is the second time that Ms. Ferguson has taken a shot at a biography of this famously difficult subject.

I am a sucker also for a well-researched biography with plenty of muddy B&W photos of the subject and/or his forebears. Kitty has managed to collect a respectable number of photos ranging from an informal childhood picture of Stephen with his two sisters (who knew?) to adult photos of Stephen and his children at a White House reception in 2009.

Ferguson notes that Hawking gathered a wagon-load of prestigious and financial awards during his career yet she makes no mention of the lack of a Nobel Prize. Since the Nobel Committees do not make their deliberations public, we have no way of determining if Stephen’s work has merely been disregarded. Generally, the Nobel Prizes are given only to living researchers. If so, the selectors will have to move quickly. Hawking is 70 years old and has been suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) for about 50 years.

According to Kitty Ferguson, our man Stephen still has a pretty demanding schedule, although usually he has a late breakfast before hopping onto his supercharged electric scooter and barreling down the narrow streets of ancient Cambridge to the office he inhabits at the DAMTP (Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics). There, Ms. Ferguson tells us that the Great One engages his cerebral circuits to take on all-comers. Generally, Hawking demolishes his opponents with little or no difficulty.

The remarkable life of this researcher began with the diagnosis of ALS as he was working toward his PhD at Cambridge University. “The realization that I had an incurable disease that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock,” said Hawking, in that classically understated way which is so characteristic of the Brits. As another Brit with a chronic disease (Parkinson’s) resulting in a motion disorder, my reactions were very similar to Hawking’s.

Although Hawking’s doctors expected him to survive for only a matter of months, his ALS has been progressing so very slowly for decades with the result that he can function with a small army of caregivers. He also requires a powered wheelchair for immediate mobility and a custom-designed speech/writing system for communicating with family, friends, and colleagues. As Hawking points out, most of his work involves remarkably intense thinking and most of his books and scholarly papers are developed with stored earlier works. He has achieved “celebrity” status, appearing frequently on TV talk shows around the world. As he wryly notes, “Between film roles, I enjoy solving physics problems.”

At 70 years of age and having a full family and social life, Hawking may not be “center stage” for very much longer. So, Professor Hawking, why not give yourself a single well-defined goal of winning a Nobel Prize this year and step back and smell the roses. In my view, greater goals are often achieved when one is not pursuing them pell-mell. I look forward to this accolade as the summit of your singular career.



Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

inmyview@yahoo.com

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