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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

The Superior Intelligence show

The front cover of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is decorated with a picture - not of a black hole or an electron but of Stephen Hawking, in his wheelchair, smiling down (benignly) at the reader like a God. Or, more precisely, like the Mekon.

The idea of a damaged body housing a massive brain is a central trope of space opera. Davros, the leathery little leader of the Daleks is one example. And on Star Trek once I remember a frail creature with a hydrocephalic head and a miniature body riding round in a hi-tech washing basket preaching peace and love.

Hawking does not look like a genius. He looks like our idea of a superior being. He even has the synthesised voice of a Dalek. Which is appropriate because Hawking's project is one of Dalek-like grandeur. It is 'the triumph of human reason' which he defines rather perversely as 'to know the mind of God'. This is Hawking's Big Claim. The Big Claim is every bit as important as the Big Bang.

Science has been tough on humanity's ego. Copernicus moved us from the centre of the solar system to the margin, and ever since then the margin has got wider and wider until science itself seemed to become hesitant. What could a little being stuck on the outer spiral of an ordinary galaxy really see of the universe? Chaos theory and quantum mechanics are in a sense admissions of defeat, elaborate 'don't knows' calling into question the whole idea of knowledge. There is no such hesitancy in Hawking's universe.

His book is an attempt to marry up the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics - two things thought to be irreconcilable. The geography of his ideas is biblical. He talks about the Beginning (Big Bang), and the End (Big Crunch). Although he argues that time is imaginary - a way of perceiving space - what people remember about him is the way he seems to have given the cosmos a story. For instance, a scientific account of the universe should preclude the need for a creator, but the way Hawking talks about the Big Bang makes it sound like the moment of Creation, as though - like Bishop Usher - he could put a date on when God said 'Let there be light'.

It is thrilling stuff and Errol Morris' television documentary A Brief History of Time (Channel 4) got the excitement across. Where philosophy has become bogged down in a debate about linguistics, Hawking seems to slough off language itself. His ideas are metaphoric and pictorial because tenses are not illuminating when you are dealing with 'before time'. When Hawking talks about the shape of time it sounds not like a new idea but like a new way of thought, the Superior Intelligence.

Then there is Hawking the slayer of dragons. Before Hawking, the black hole was a kind of worrying hiatus in creation - a gap leading to some hideous parallel world, or worse, the Beginning of the End itself. Hawking proved that black holes leaked radiation just like you do and that their 'event horizon' gets smaller rather than larger. Black holes are finite. The Superior Intelligence is benign and comforting.

But it is also human. The Channel 4 documentary wove Hawking's biography into its account of his theories. Of course, this is no ordinary biography. The professor is at pains to point out that he was born on the anniversary of Galileo's death and that he now has Newton's old job. Channel 4 added the war (and pointed out that the blackout offered wonderful opportunities for the young astronomer). There are the human touches too - the boozy undergraduate years, the tragic illness, etc.
Flicking between the theories and the life dramatised the basic thrust of Hawking's grand project. It gave an anecdotal tone to the science. Hawking talks about what would happen to you in a black hole as though he had been there and done that, as though he had straddled space and time. It is the reversal of Copernicus. The restoration of man (Hawking) to the centre. Nowhere in the Channel 4 film did anyone question the Triumph of Human Reason. Instead it was offered as revelation. At one point Roger Penrose was accused of having doubted; he visibly squirmed and then repented. The film was divided - like the Bible - into chapters, and each chapter was dated so that we could watch the March of Time Towards Truth.

But as the film progressed, an odd thing happened when the hagiography started actually to undermine the science. It's true that Hawking's own highly visual way of thinking is appropriate and illuminating, but the film went out of its way to point to its roots not in science but in disability.

Hawking finds it hard to write and speak; a picture is easier to construct. When Hawking explained that the 'direction' of time was indicated by the 'increase of chaos in the system' we saw first a broken cup and then the professor's broken body. This was poignant. But when he went on to talk about the possibility that time might be reversed at the Big Crunch we were shown the same images in a way that seemed to be inviting us to think...well he would say that wouldn't he. If you had motor neurone disease you'd want time to go backwards too.

Hawking has dedicated his career to reviving the grand project of science and the idea of a truth that is objective and complete. Without ever engaging with the science directly, Errol Morris got the Superior Intelligence to collude in the trashing of his own life's work. Hawking may think he was saying that science is the triumph of reason. In fact, what he said was that science is a compensatory delusion.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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