Catholic physicist: Remember Stephen Hawking as a scientist, not a sage

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Stephen Hawking during a ceremony at the White House in Washington Aug. 12, 2009 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Stephen Hawking during a ceremony at the White House in Washington Aug. 12, 2009 (CNS photo/Paul Haring). 

Most people have heard of Stephen Hawking—they may misspell or mispronounce his name, but they know who he is. That puts him in a very select group of scientists that includes Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Darwin and, at most, one or two others.

Every one of these individuals was a very great scientist indeed. But there have been many great scientists who are almost completely unknown to the general public. Why the difference? The humorist Max Beerbohm once quipped that Newton’s popular renown was partly due to the story of the apple landing on his head. Galileo certainly would not be a household name without the Roman Inquisition. And one cannot help thinking that Einstein’s wild hair contributed to his mystique.


In the case of Hawking, it is likely that his disability (ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s disease”) did much to fire the public’s imagination. He seemed like a purely mental being, someone whose intellect was so vast that he had left ordinary physicality behind. No merely bodily limitation could hold back that powerful mind. But whatever the causes of the public’s interest, he truly was one of the greatest scientists of his generation.

There were actually three Stephen Hawkings. There was Hawking the physicist, Hawking the philosopher and Hawking the prophet-sage.

There were actually three Stephen Hawkings.

As a physicist, Hawking made contributions that will be remembered and studied as long as science is done. His greatest discovery is that black holes radiate energy. This came as a great surprise. A black hole is a region where gravitation is so strong that nothing can escape it, including light—hence the name “black.” Anything that approaches too close to a black hole is ineluctably pulled toward its center and crushed to a point. What happens inside a black hole stays inside a black hole. Or so everyone thought. In the 1970s, Hawking showed that quantum mechanics causes black holes to radiate energy. This “Hawking radiation” can cause a black hole to evaporate completely, so that everything that has ever fallen into it ends up being radiated as particles back out into space.

This leads to a deep puzzle, as Hawking himself pointed out. The basic principles of quantum mechanics say that physical processes cannot destroy information. But Hawking’s calculations seemed to show that the radiation remaining after a black hole has evaporated does not “remember” anything about the things that fell into it. If true, this would imply that something is wrong with quantum mechanics—a very big deal. The consensus now, however, is that black holes do obey the laws of quantum mechanics and do not destroy information. How this works in detail remains deeply mysterious. The “black hole information paradox” continues to vex the world’s greatest physicists.

Another subject on which Hawking did important work is what happened at the first moments of the universe. He did not answer this question. To do so would require having a complete and consistent theory of quantum gravity and knowing how to apply it to the Big Bang, which as yet no one can do. Nevertheless, Hawking, with colleague James Hartle, proposed an interesting highly speculative scenario according to which the universe popped into existence by something called a quantum fluctuation. This is heady stuff, and it seems indeed to have gone to Hawking’s head. He became Hawking the philosopher.

There have been great scientists who were also great philosophers. Hawking, unfortunately, was not one of them. 

There have been great physicists and mathematicians who were also great philosophers (Pascal, Descartes and Leibniz come to mind). Hawking, unfortunately, was not one of them. It was Leibniz himself who famously asked, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer of Christians, including Leibniz, is “God.” The answer for Hawking was “quantum gravity,” which can produce universes by quantum fluctuations. “But who,” one might ask, “ordained that there should be quantum gravity?” To this, Hawking gave no answer.

To his credit, however, there was a time when Hawking saw things more clearly. In his famous 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, he noted that physics is “just a set of rules and equations.” “What is it,” he asked, “that breathes fire into those equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.” Exactly. There is no logical necessity for there to be any real thing described by the mathematics of quantum gravity.

It may well be that if there is a real universe, and if it is described by the mathematics of quantum gravity, the universe may have to have a beginning that unfolds in a certain way. But Leibniz’s question remains: why is there a real universe rather than nothing at all? One could say that God is the answer. One could consistently say that there is no answer. But it is nonsense to say that quantum gravity is the answer since, as Hawking himself once grasped, a mere set of equations cannot confer reality on anything.

Having become the most famous scientist in the world, and having answered (as he thought) the question of existence, what was left for Hawking to do? To be a prophet and a sage. To hold forth on the fate of humanity, extraterrestrials, ecological disaster, colonization of space and machines taking over the world.

Stephen Hawking the sage will be mercifully forgotten. But the work of Stephen Hawking the physicist will live on.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
10 months 1 week ago

Is the best we can say of Stephen Hawkins is that he wrote a popular book?

Are we led by his heroic overcome of his very debilitating affliction to give him more credit than he was due? Would anyone have paid much attention to him if he did not have ALS.

As the article indicates he had no special insights in science outside of his very esoteric narrow area. So why should anyone pay attention to anything else he said especially outside of science?

Stanley Kopacz
10 months 1 week ago

There is nothing narrow about physics and nothing narrow about Hawking's scientific accomplishments. He reached to the boundaries of what the human mind can accomplish. Give credit where credit is due. As to his philosophical musings and life as a media sage, I concur with the writer of the article. Hawking seemed to love the spotlight overly much but there are much worse sins and sinners. Look at the president who is a blowhard with no redeeming virtues whatsoever and nothing between his ears except for a talent for playing suckers.

Randal Agostini
10 months 1 week ago

Everyone has redeeming virtues - it is a rule of God - one simply has to look for them - more difficult for some.

J Cosgrove
10 months 1 week ago

There is nothing narrow about physics and nothing narrow about Hawking's scientific accomplishments.

No one said that physics is narrow. I suggest you go to the Great Courses website and list the science courses. I have watched most of them and am aware of the number of different areas especially physics.

Yes, Hawking's specialty was a very, very narrow area of this range of topics that physics entails. If you want to argue over the term "esoteric" I will not pursue it.

After Hawking's work in his area of physics, he had nothing to contribute and was often intellectually dishonest outside of his specialty. He does deserve credit for his accomplishments in physics given his physical condition. But that's it. He contributed nothing else of value. People praise him because of his affliction not because he was a sage.

He did submit a recent paper that proposed a method to detect other universes. Hawking was an advocate of the multiverse concept without ever addressing the folly of such a concept

Dionys Murphy
10 months ago

" He does deserve credit for his accomplishments in physics given his physical condition." Shame on you. Taking a few online video 'courses' on physics and you think you know squat and can diminish a genius' work in physics and suggest he was well thought of because of his 'physical condition?' What a shameful person you are.

Dolores Pap
10 months 1 week ago

"One could say that God is the answer. One could consistently say that there is no answer."
Could it be, that as a Christian, you need an answer as to how the universe was conceived, but that a scientist doesn't have to concern himself/herself with any belief system except that which he can scientifically prove? Einstein wasn't that far removed from Hawking's thinking either, yet he's not denigrated by you at all. Einstein stated that "My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment."[5]

Randal Agostini
10 months 1 week ago

Unfortunately his view of God is a distortion. God is Love. When we are growing up we all have to live by rules, we can even call these natural or self evident mores. When we forgo these rules there are consequences, which affect us and society. The consequences may become so severe that they eventually destroy a society.

Derrick Kourie
10 months 1 week ago

I believe that Einstein was indeed quite far removed from Hawking's thinking. True -- neither of them believed in a personal god. It is also true that the thinking of both seems to have changed over time. As the above article explains, Hawking ended up thinking that a "quantum fluctuation" was the source of all. Einstein tended more towards a deist position. Here is a quote given in Wikipedia of how Einstein responded to a question about whether he was a pantheist:

Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza's Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things....

This is hardly the view of Hawking...

Carol Cox
10 months 1 week ago

Of course, I meant Dr. Hawkings!

Mercedes Michalski
10 months 1 week ago

Barr wants a sign from Hawking as the generation whined for a sign from Jesus. They were jealous, didn't believe in him, insulted him. Barr denigrates Hawking as scientist and sage. Hawking, quiet as a reed, nonviolent as the suffering servant, Jesus, states quantum gravity for there being existence. Barr will get no sign but Jonah's.
God works through us: Jesus' risen body. Hawking works as scientist; as sage. Barr sees not the God in Hawking. Can Barr see the Christ in Barr? No.

E.Patrick Mosman
10 months 1 week ago

In the real world of science there are constants and laws of nature and they are as described in the following quote as ‘just so’ and these constants and laws govern the universe and all that is in it.
Quote: “Why are the constants and laws of nature just so, and not different? For example, why is the speed of light not faster than it is? Why are electrons so much lighter than the protons they orbit in atoms? If fundamental laws and constants were even slightly different from what is observed, then life as we know it would not exist. (For example, atoms would be less stable, or stars and planets would not form.)” End of Quote. Source: Universe Forum, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
In other words why are there laws of physics or gravity or even dark energy. Recently Hawking based an argument on the spontaneous or even preexistence of physical laws, energy and matter without cause and without questioning why or how. Doesn't this require an almost religious faith in material and physical observable and non-observable 'things' that had no 'cause' and many exist only in exotic, mathematical calculations.
This certainly goes against Hawking's conclusion in his famous book, little read and even less understood,
"A Brief History of Time";
"If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God."
He was attacked by some scientists, atheist and other nonbelievers for even referring to the possibility of a God. Since then he first redid his mathematical model to eliminate the Big Bang and construct a universe that stops expanding, contracts to minimum and then starts expanding again without a Bang or whimper. Then he came up with another theory based on the infinite existence in time or before time of gravity and mathematically developed extra universes.Later he theorized that the recently discovered Higgs Boson could destroy the universe, among other potential universe or earth destroyers. Fortunately,
"God's in His heaven—All's right with the world! " Robert Browning

10 months 1 week ago

I was interested in this article by the headline. In reading it I was disappointed by the seeming pettiness of the author. He anoints Hawkins a sage so that he can debunk his wisdom. Disagree with Hawkins but don’t try to reduce him to your idea of wisdom. The universe is bigger than our small points of view but still I’m interested to hear and read what others think. I might even call those who are brave enough to write, sages of our time. They don’t have to be completely right. No one is.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
10 months 1 week ago

Stephen Hawking - a gifted guy. God be praised.

Bruce Snowden
10 months 1 week ago

There's something about Stephen Hawking that makes him likeable, this from an un-credentialed observer. For me I think it was his fortitude not allowing ALS's deformity to get in the way of his profound scientific scholarship and despite ASL's crippling limitations to live a productive life. I greatly admire the extent and practice of his Natural Virtue. I think the biggest personal flaw if one may so name it, was his claim to be an Atheist, but that didn't interfere with his respectful meeting with four Popes and They towards him.

Atheism puzzles me in that it denies an entity it says doesn't exist. If something doesn't exist why bother denying it? If there is no God why should nothingness be denied and if denied, exactly what is one denying as there is nothing there to deny? Additionally just as Believers may sometimes doubt the existence of God, so too I'm sure Atheists at times may actually wonder if there is a God, that "wonder" becoming a slightly opened door allowing a scant peep into the realm of the great "I AM," shattering even more the nothingness of Atheism. It is, or it isn't, isn't it?

The more sensible route to follow it seems to me is Agnosticism making room for the reality of God, summed up quite well in the "Prayer of the Agnostic" as follows, "O my God, if there is God, save my soul if I have a soul!" This taken from one of the talks of the Servant of God, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

I believe the merciful God won't let Stephen Hawking's grave and well borne suffering go unrewarded. When he reached that invisible and impenetrable wall where the cosmos ends and the Homeland, often called "Heaven" begins, Jesus will grant him entrance as Stephen uttered in absolute amazement,
"My God, THEY were right!" May Stephen Hawking rest in peace.

Andrew Strada
10 months 1 week ago

The problem, of course, is that if Hawking was right, he'll never know it.

Bruce Snowden
10 months ago

Andrew, in my opinion in so far that he was right, Stephen Hawking will know all about it, as life in the Land of the Living, the Homeland, Heaven, others if you wish, is all about knowing and living truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

alby john
10 months ago

Stephen Hawkins, the renowned scientist was an asset to the world of science. We are really blessed to have his contributions til his last breath. This article refreshes our memory and add on some unknown facts about him. His dedicated and determined thirst for knowledge and research puts him in a very select group of scientists that includes Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Darwin and, at most, one or two others.

Heartfelt condolences by Web Design Company Kerala

Lonnie Barone
10 months ago

"The humorist Max Beerbohm once quipped that Newton’s popular renown was partly due to the story of the apple landing on his head. Galileo certainly would not be a household name without the Roman Inquisition. And one cannot help thinking that Einstein’s wild hair contributed to his mystique."

This paragraph borders on the ridiculous. Newton, Galileo, and Einstein would be equally popular, equally celebrated with or without Inquisitions, apples, or hair. Those appurtenances were nothing more than pop culture addenda to their already soaring fame, like Lincoln's beard and hat, Twain's cigar, and Barrack Obama's ears.

More: Science

The latest from america

Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019