For all his brilliance on matters cosmic, Hawking's world was rather small


National Post, 21 March 2018

Hawking's mastery of describing the universe did not answer the question of why it existed at all. 'What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?'

Stephen Hawking’s death last week was fittingly marked by tributes to a great scientist and a courageous man. Yet it also indicated how confused we are today about what thousands of years ago was already clear, namely the philosophy of science. Professor Hawking was not beyond those confusions.

As a graduate student in Cambridge in 1995, I was in a bakery when I turned from the counter to find Hawking in the shop behind me, accompanied by his nurse, whom he had married that summer.

I remember from that passing encounter an admiration for his courage, as it was a painstaking process for him to simply get into the bakery and have a look at what was on offer. That he insisted on doing that, to say nothing of carrying on his academic career, was inspiring.

As was his brilliance, even for those like me who understood little of the physics he explored. The world got used to it, but it remained astonishing that he could do his academic work despite his disability. How does one do physics without scratching out equations on a pad or chalkboard?

Hawking’s compositions in physics are thus comparable to the 14-year-old Mozart transcribing Allegri’s Miserere from memory after hearing it once, or Beethoven composing the ninth symphony when deaf. That music and physics use the language of mathematics is not accidental to those towering achievements.

Surely a large part of Hawking’s appeal was that he demonstrated that man’s greatness lies in his capacity — despite the frailty of the flesh he shares with the beasts — to touch the deepest mysteries of meaning, as is done by sublime music and in contemplating the vastness and order of the cosmos. To fully contemplate the vastness of the cosmos requires more than one discipline.

Continue reading at the National Post: