Stephen Hawking, Science, and the Limits of Intelligence

IN AN interview conducted by New Scientist magazine, for the occasion of Stephen Hawking’s seventieth birthday, the opening question serves to remind the reader (as if reminder were needed) that the world’s perhaps most famous cosmologist is a fellow of esoteric thought.

What has been the most exciting development in physics during the course of your career?

COBE’s discovery of tiny variations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background and the subsequent confirmation by WMAP that these are in excellent agreement with the predictions of inflation. The Planck satellite may detect the imprint of the gravitational waves predicted by inflation. This would be quantum gravity written across the sky.

Well, duh. The man who once said that only losers brag of their IQ had some decades earlier tested and verified his own, after a fall down some stairs gave rise to concern that perhaps a few percentiles’ worth were dislodged from his skull. As things turned out, the concern proper was with cause rather than effect: Hawking’s imbalance on that day was a neurological event, an early indication that he was suffering from a degenerative disease. The diagnosis arrived at age twenty-one, and for the last forty-nine years he has been not only living but reshaping our understanding of the universe while burdened with a disease that kills most within a decade.

The career of Stephen Hawking, which as best as I can disentangle it concerns the cosmological and theoretical inner workings of black holes, quantum gravity, and radiation, is at bottom an empirical voyage propelled by questions concerning both cause and effect. In recent decades the pure math of theoretical physics has yielded a vast prospect of counter-intuitive and even bewildering notions such as an eleven-dimensional finite but unbounded universe in which time and space were once separate. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity supplied a framework for predicting and explaining the behaviour of matter at the cosmological scale, while Quantum Mechanics did the same for the field of particulate matter. The theories however were discovered incompatible, while in time calculation and experiment produced several “string theories” to reconcile the apparent double standard of nature’s laws. Among Hawking’s current interests is M-theory, a sort of grand unification scheme which draws into a unity the six string theories striving each in its way to explain the underlying laws governing the material universe as a whole.

Much has been made of the fact that a man undaunted by pursuit of A Theory of Everything is wonder-struck by women. “They are a complete mystery,” he says at the end of the interview. An inescapable topic where he is concerned is the outing some years ago of his supposed atheism, in a book written by one of his former wives. I use the terms outing and supposed because he has been less than direct in this matter, which was held widely to be a shocking revelation and worthy of copious attention. Of far more interest to me is Hawking’s own provocative reflections on the limits of our intelligence, the concern — shared by many scientists — that the next century or two of our development will be critical.

Today there is an ideological bifurcation of our species over the question of whether science or faith constitutes our most precious resource for surmounting the moral, political, and material impediments of the day. Hawking has expressed his own view that science will emerge triumphant in this debate because science “works,” which is to say it asks rational questions and provides sound and verifiable answers. But the question Will we survive? must remain an open one, the real possibility standing that the lesser breeds without the Law and without our (self-flattering) intelligence will outlive us — the cockroaches and bacteria and so on. So soon to have arrived on the scene, and by such slight margins of probability, we deceive ourselves with the notions that evolution is “all about us” and that we represent the most fit and most splendid product of nature. What Orwell once wrote of poems — that they justify themselves by surviving — is true also of organisms. The court of nature has yet to yield its final verdict where homo sapiens is concerned, and the only certain thing is that the lucky ones will be those who died not having known when and how the gavel fell.

Evolutionary biology and natural selection lie well beyond Hawking’s areas of specialization. Even further afield are these nonetheless important questions of our destiny. The irony of his career, which is the irony of science, is that investigation must take place for its own sake — the product of mere intellectual curiosity — and that only such disinterested experimentation is likely to yield the knowledge which can advance us in the day-to-day material world. Will Stephen Hawking set in motion a chain of discoveries yielding indispensable domestic utility while staring into a deep-space black hole or a string of mathematical formulae? Has he done so already? Is the alternative to non-renewable resources nested in cosmic microwave background radiation? Theoretical physics can not be guided by such questions, but experience reveals that even the most abstract answers to the most esoteric questions may come to shape the practical worlds of economics, politics, and morality. With explosive population growth, increasingly erratic weather, nuclear war, fuel and water shortages, and famine confronting our species, more than ever before the outcome depends on our intelligence and intellectual curiosity. So far these have revealed themselves to be an equivocal endowment.

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