Evaluating Hawking’s work is beyond me, so why do I feel so sad about his death? A simple explanation is that a bright and kind media star becomes a friend, in the digital sense, so no wonder so many of us mourn him. I think that for me and many others it was because of his humour, which was inspired and self-mocking, and made me feel I should try to read his famous book. I failed after, ahem, a number of pages. I tried skipping a bit, looking for an easier section, but again it was only the humorous asides that registered. The Chronology Protection Conjecture, for example. Fun. I pretended to understand that black holes could emit something, but that was because a helpful diagram illustrated the point. His approach was friendly, so I did my best to understand some cosmology, although the topic was hardly a major interest of mine.
By comparison, Feynman’s “Six Easy Pieces” were relatively easy until Chapter 4, and then I hit a comprehension ceiling. I had enjoyed the first three chapters sufficiently not to complain that the book had been mis-titled. “Easy” is a relative concept. “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman” was even easier, but it was intended to be, yet it introduced interesting concepts. His lectures and interviews are easy as well, mostly. Feynman diagrams are another matter. I only got an inkling of what they were about by understanding a different conjecture based on the analogy of calculating the trajectories of particles as the probability of one of a random collection of passengers in a carriage in the London tube system exiting at a particular distant station. Knowing the London Tube map helped refine the probabilities after every stop, thus simplifying the calculations.
I explain this to make a general point. As items increase in difficulty the personal failure rate increases, until you reach break point, in which the struggle to understand seems a poor investment of effort, and you return to other interesting problems at a manageable level of difficulty. Comprehension ceilings can be breached to some degree by persistence, but perhaps more so by excellent teaching, often using analogies and diagrams. However, to be frank, eventually Maths makes an appearance, and until it does, actual comprehension is sometimes wishful thinking, a veneer for public show. Count wherever possible.
Intellectual life has its challenges. I myself have understood the theory of relativity 7 times. If you put a clock on a train and there is someone with a similar clock watching the train go by……. I have forgotten the details 8 times.
Our individual proficiencies interact with the difficulty of the items until we reach a personal high-water mark. Each test item has a pass rate (this is the sum total of how many people in the population can pass that item), and each person has a personal history of how many of those problems they themselves have solved. If we take a population there is a matrix in which we can plot every person against every test item. The higher a person’s ability relative to the difficulty of an item, the higher the probability of a correct response on that item. Eventually we all reach a point where there is only a 0.5 probability of getting the correct answer. That point will be different for different people, but for all of us that is probably the moment we decide to turn to other pastimes.
So, if most of us did not understand his book, why the adulation of Hawking? For once, people were allowed to value intelligence. He embodied the idea of mind without body, the trapped intellect that might be overlooked by the careless observer. His fortitude in adversity was an inspiration, and also encouraged the view that cerebrally palsied children could be liberated mentally by computer controlled signing devices. Not always, usually in those cases because of other brain injuries.
Hawking was the embodiment of a fictional 1950 series he might have read as a child, Dan Dare and the dastardly Mekon. They had been engineered for high intelligence, had very large brains, atrophied bodies, and moved around on levitating chairs. What fascinated children 70 years ago still has its fascination today. Hawking, like so many of our generation, wanted to be Superman, “because he was everything I am not”. Yet Hawking was someone to stare at, a modern-day Einstein, a Superman of the mind. Millions saw him as the embodiment of intelligence, and permitted themselves to admire him for it.