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