While we mourn the death of Stephen Hawking we can chuckle at the discomfiture of God; He would be forced to welcome the man who debunked the myth that He had created the universe.
Science today is more and more a collective enterprise; flashes of intuitive insight or dreams like Edward Kekule’s are rare. Many researchers simultaneously come upon an idea. Ever since Paul Lemaitre proposed his theory of the Big Bang Origin of Universe, a host of scientists and researchers- George Gamov, Steven Weinberg, Arno Penzias, Robert Wilson, David Schramm and above all Roger Penrose, to name just a few, have refined it and provided its mathematical validation and prepared the ground work for Hawking but they largely remain unknown to the lay public.
Stephen Hawking, in a flash of brilliance, among many other theories, proposed the extinction of Black Holes as a result of its leaking radiation. Black holes are the debris of massive stars and everything within the range of its immense gravitational pull is forever destined to end up inside it. Ever since cosmology has become quotidian and the man called Hawking something of a cult, a man more than a scientist whose contribution was enormous, he became a raging, post-modernist cultural phenomenon. He finally lost out to death last week at the age of seventy-six and commoners as well as followers of the recondite discipline mourn his death alike.
When Einstein came up with his theory of relativity there were not many people who could comprehend it. In fact, in a lecture seminar, in the early years of his Theory, he was left wondering, in all humility, as to who was the third person beside himself and the host, who understood relativity. Even Neil's Bohr once said of quantum mechanics "If you think you understand it that only shows that you don't know the first thing about it."
They were both modest people. They believed that scientific ideas had a life of their own in the highly restricted and restrictive symbolic language of say the tensor algebra or non-Euclidean geometry; tools forged and perfected for this purpose. If the contemporary mathematics, which was of considerable sophistication, could not cope with the exegesis and implications of relativity, how can language of daily speech? Scientists, alas! by the nature of their esoteric craft were destined to be a small aristocracy of knowledge.
Einstein was a Promethean figure; he wrested the closely guarded secrets of the universe from the Gods. As Roland Barth, the French semioticist put it, “There is a single secret to the world, and this secret is held in a word; the universe is a safe of which humanity seeks the combination: Einstein almost found it.” Hawking was seen as a successor to Einstein; he personified the hopes of completing the scientific enterprise that Einstein left behind: fusing quantum mechanics and general relativity in a single seamless "unified" theory. Brief, succinct, and accessible to all, in the same frugal mode as e=mc2.
In the beginning was the word! And ironically enough the hope for uttering the ultimate secret of the universe fell to the lot of a man who was denied the gift of speech. Hawkings' peculiar ailment- Louis Gehrig disorder - now as well known as the man himself - had rendered him totally incapable of caring for himself but it in no way incapacitated the magical brain. Is it that the body had been victimized by a preternaturally active mind or had the mind been compensated in a prodigious manner for the decrepit frame? The synthesized voice emanating through a computer seemed to prefigure the cybernetic utopia of a disembodied mind; of pure intellect, independent of the gross physical frame. People looked up to him for: REVELATION something that was in the domain of religion. Hawking was the new God.
There is another bit of delicious irony at work here. Stephen Hawking was in search of totalizing explanations, the "grand narrative," on the basis of his observations and experiments with the four basic scientific constructs space, time, matter and number. But the post-modernist ethos which 'is suspicious of any claim to absolute, authentic truth etc.’ has appropriated him as one of its most celebrated icons; and for Good reasons too!
Make room Mr. Neils Bohr, here comes Stephen Hawking. His A Brief History of Time, in consonance with the cultural logic of late capitalism, declares esoteric scientific knowledge to be the estate of common man. His majesty the Consumer King is entitled to undertake an intellectual safari to the world of high science where, instead of monkeys gamboling, they have electrons jumping from one orbit to another - disappearing from one and materializing into another without so much as a trace of the intervening spaces; one moment it was in this orbit the next in a higher or lower orbit without traveling the intervening distance. Such rare nuggets of scientific curiosity like Pauli’s exclusion principle, or time reversal asymmetry, or naked singularity are strewn across the pages, to be enjoyed, flaunted, or stored away in the attic of the brain.
Did Stephen Hawking really usher the intellectual democracy? Have the concepts of quantum cosmology - event horizon, naked singularity, entropy-wormholes or time dilation entered the language of public discourse? Did issues as hopelessly divorced from reality and beyond any empirical validation - is it an inflationary universe, would the Big Bang be followed by the Big Crunch become the concern of common man or are these just an amusing diversion? It is a participatory universe; there is no reality outside one's own observation of it; by the merest act of observation one influences the observed system which chimes very well with the postmodernist claim that scientists cannot but interpret what they observe and in that they are unavoidably constructing knowledge. In the process of deconstruction whatever random insights the masses can bring upon the nature of the cosmological reality is fair and valid.
The man, who was the expositor of the ideas on the frontiers of physics and cosmology, seemed to have become a rock star and the esoteric bit of knowledge that he spewed became the most happening performance to watch. I had some years back, with great effort, secured a seat in the hall of wisdom where he lectured to a motley group of people, scientists, academicians, industrialists, political big wigs, civil servants and humble folks like us, unlettered in the vocabulary of science, nevertheless no less keen to know what he had to say.
The "artist, illusionist, cosmic joker" knew how to play up to the gallery, to the cultural market place where kitsch and imitation art, where comic book version of Shakespeare often do duty for the real thing. In the process he “sold about (8.5 million) one copy for every 750 men, women and children of the world. I have sold more books on physics than Madonna on sex”. (Foreword to the illustrated A Brief History of Time; Bantam).
If someone could persuade you to buy abstruse texts in preference to titillating tomes on sex, he had to be a charmer par excellence.
India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Pataliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.