Stephen Hawking, storyteller

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In 1988, like thousands of others, I bought a copy of Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ (BHT). I stopped understanding it around page 30, but I kept doggedly on to the end, partly in the (vain) hope that I would come to understand it eventually, and partly because, even without that comprehension, the book tells a good story: a narrative of discovery. In writing his story, Hawking is both a good example of popularisers of science, but somewhat different from most of them. What is interesting is both what he does and what he avoids doing.

To examine Hawking’s approach to this story-telling, let us look at chapter 5 of BHT, which deals with ‘Elementary Particles and the Forces of Nature’. The chapter is built around a narrative that takes us all the way from Aristotle to Hawking. (Fans of the TV show The Big Bang Theory may be reminded of Sheldon’s explanation of Physics to Penny that begins with ‘a warm summer’s evening in ancient Greece’, and wonder if the writers were having a gentle dig at Hawking here.) The narrative takes us through a succession of dates and people: ‘in 1803 John Dalton pointed out…’, ‘in 1911 Rutherford finally showed…’, ‘in 1932 Chadwick discovered…’, ‘in 1956 Lee and Yang suggested…’, ‘in 1964 Cronin and Fitch discovered…’ and finally ‘my [Hawking’s] work in the 1970s…’. These events provide the backbone to the chapter. Each time a new character enters the story, Hawking provides a snippet of personal information about them, mainly the place they worked or the post they held or, pointedly perhaps, the Nobel prize they won. Unlike many popularisers of science, however, he tells us little about what they said, thought, or felt (I draw on the work of Dr Olga Pilkington here). We are not told that ‘Rutherford argued passionately that..’ or ‘Einstein finally realized that…’ or ‘To his surprise, Chadwick found that…’. This is a sparse narrative. There is a report of the debate, over many decades, but no enactment or personalisation of it.

The narrative follows a cyclical structure, each cycle beginning with doubt and ending in certainty. The doubt is indicated by verbs such as ‘believe’, ‘think’, ‘seem’ and the certainty by verbs such as ‘point out’, ‘discover’, ‘demonstrate’, ‘show’. In this, Hawking follows a pattern typical of popular, and indeed professional, science writing: even though it is that acknowledged that current knowledge is only provisional and may be overturned by future generations, the language always takes us on a journey from question or false belief to truth. For illustration, here are a few of the cycles:

  • Aristotle believed…; A few Greeks held that…; Einstein pointed out…
  • At first it was thought…; However, Chadwick discovered…
  • Up to 1956 it was believed that…; In 1956 Lee and Yang suggested that…; The same year, Wu proved their prediction correct
  • It seemed that… However in 1964 Cronin and Fitch discovered that…

The chapter ends with a ‘cliff-hanger’ that is neither certainty nor doubt exactly but partial revelation (‘hints’ and ‘glimpse’) of ideas to be explained in subsequent chapters:

  • My work in the 1970s focused on the black holes that can result… It was this that led to the first hints of… – a glimpse of the shape of a quantum theory of gravity yet to come.

Again like all popular science writers, Hawking acknowledges the importance of physical evidence in supporting ideas and hypotheses. He notes ‘physical evidence was provided by Einstein’ and ‘experiments indicated’ and ‘the discovery…confirmed the theory’. Hawking is unusual, however, in prioritizing people and their ideas over experimental data in his narrative. Where other writers tend to attribute ideas to people (‘Hawking hypothesised…’) but attribute facts to experimentation (‘studies have demonstrated…’; ‘the findings showed…’), Hawking attributes both ideas and facts to people: ‘Thompson demonstrated…’; ‘Rutherford showed…’; ‘Chadwick discovered…’; ‘Wu proved their prediction correct’.  For most writers, human beings come up with ideas but nature comes up with the truth; the scientist is subservient to the physical world they are studying. For Hawking the theoretical physicist the relationship is more equal, and the scientist imposes a structure upon the physical world.

Popular science books tell us both how ideas were arrived at and what those ideas are. The narrative is more than simply a device to keep the audience’s attention. It also establishes an ideology of science, constructing for us a universe in which humankind approaches by small steps and giant leaps an understanding of the world around us. Writers choose the style of the narratives they tell. They can portray the scientists as working in teams or alone, as working in harmony or arguing bitterly. They can describe ideas and models as arising from thought or from experiments, from genius or chance. Hawking presents us with a series of individuals who are predominantly thinkers rather than doers. They work dispassionately, independently but in dialogue with each other. What they construct is a model of the universe we live in.

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