This article first appeared in the April 6, 1990 issue of Commonweal
The longevity of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Bantam) on international best-seller lists is itself a phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation. As I write, the book has been on the American list for more than ninety weeks. For a work on relativity and quantum physics to achieve this distinction is unprecedented. Hawking is a physicist with a particular interest in cosmology. He has achieved theoretical insights of remarkable originality, particularly with regard to the quantum physics of black holes. In A Brief History of Time he describes his personal discoveries within the context of our current understanding of the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.
Hawking interprets modern cosmology with admirable clarity, but his book is hardly a "gripping" read. So what accounts for the book's extraordinary popular appeal? Some uncharitable critics have suggested that A Brief History of Time is more a publicity event than a book, that it is bought but not read, and that its main value is as a coffee-table status symbol. Best sellers do have a way of generating their own aura of irresistibility, but, in the case of Hawking's book, this can hardly be the whole story.
I would suggest several reasons for the popularity of A Brief History of Time. The first and most obvious is Hawking himself. Stephen Hawking suffers from ALS, or motor neuron disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. His body is almost totally disabled. He is confined to a wheelchair and speaks and writes with the help of a computer and voice synthesizer. Within this incapacitated body is contained a remarkably capacitated mind, some would say the most brilliant theoretical mind since Einstein. Hawking was born on the anniversary of Galileo's death and holds Isaac Newton's chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He is a fitting successor to those illustrious explorers of the cosmos.
For many people, Hawking's physical trial and intellectual triumph confirms the primacy of mind over matter, of optimistic spirit over debilitating misfortune. (Hawking himself might merely use the words "lucky" and "unlucky.") Purchasing Hawking's book may be a conscious or unconscious way of paying homage to the inspiring courage of the man.
But there is more. Professor Hawking's reputation has exploded beyond his physics to make him a revered icon of our time. We are seduced by his achievement into believing that whatever he has to say on any topic must be worth listening to—even as Newton was pressed into public service as Master of the Mint and Einstein was sought out to be Israel's head of state.
In this regard, I am put in mind of an anecdote described by New Age guru Shirley MacLaine in her book Going Within: A Guide to Inner Transformation (Bantam). MacLaine goes on pilgrimage to Cambridge to interview Stephen Hawking. She seeks wisdom. Hawking, characteristically, asks for a kiss. After some chatty preliminaries, MacLaine asks if the harmonic energy of the universe is "loving."
"I don't know that there is anything loving about energy," says the wheelchair-bound professor, via his computerized voice-synthesizer. "I don't think loving is a word I could ascribe to the universe."
"What is a word you could use?" wonders MacLaine.
"Order," replies Hawking. "The universe is well-defined order."
MacLaine persists: "So the question becomes how we define order in relation to how we see ourselves and our behavior?"
"Maybe," replies Hawking. "What do you mean?"
What do you mean, indeed. There is not much chance for a meaningful dialogue in this encounter between latter-day shaman and bemused physicist. MacLaine lives in a world of penny miracles. Chants, crystals, chakras, channelers, and clairvoyants: These are the instruments of her dreamy conjurations. Hawking, on the other hand, modestly admits to only one miracle, the universe itself, and even that may be something less than miraculous. His meditations are mathematical.
What the actress and the professor have in common is they both sell lots of books. Apparently, both authors have something to say (or are perceived to have something to say) that the public wants to hear. And indeed they explicitly assert the same goal—to know how the universe works and the role we play in it. It is a goal of formidable dimension, and if either book provides the answers, it deserves long tenure on the best-seller list.
Professor Hawking lists three possibilities in the search for the ultimate meaning of the universe: (1) There is an ultimate theory describing the universe that we will one day discover, if only we are clever enough (for Hawking that theory will be mathematical, the so-called GUT, or Grand Unified Theory so vigorously sought by physicists); (2) there is no ultimate theory, only an infinite sequence of theories describing the universe in ever greater detail; or (3) the universe is random and arbitrary, with no more than occasional fleeting and accidental patterns of meaning.
Both Stephen Hawking and Shirley MacLaine express a preference for Option 1, which may account for their popularity. MacLaine asserts her preference for Option 1 emphatically; the professor is more tentative. Tentativeness, of course, is one thing that separates science from New Age sorcery (or, for that matter, from Old Age religion). Hawking salts his speculations with words like "maybe," "if," "perhaps," and "probably." He knows we are still a long way from knowing how the universe works, much less why it works.
However, concludes Hawking, if we ever do discover an ultimate theory, it should be possible in time for anyone to understand it. Then we can get on with the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. "If we find the answer to that," he says, "it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God."
The mind of God! Hawking's frequent use of the G-word is one thing that distinguishes his book from other popular works on contemporary cosmology by physicists (there have been dozens in recent years). Might that too be a component of the book's allure?
Great physicists make unsteady philosophers, and even unsteadier theologians. Whatever the hopes of readers who come to the book looking for theological insights, Hawking's invocation of God's name most often records God's absence. Indeed, Hawking's own labors as a theoretical physicist might seem to restrict ever more severely any actual or potential role for a divine being. His illustrious predecessor as Lucasian Professor confined God's role in the universe to that of a Great Clockmaker who set the world going and then retired from his creation. By proposing a universe that has no boundary in space or beginning in time, Hawking removes even the need for a Creator.