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Stephen Hawking
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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.

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  1. dearieme says:

    I heard a local opinion yesterday. “Not quite as unpleasant as his second wife.” A well turned phrase, I thought. Harsh? Dunno. I have an acquaintance, a pure mathematician, who holds that almost all mathematical physicists are unpleasant. Or, at least, almost all Cambridge mathematical physicists are unpleasant.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  2. @dearieme

    Ah, the boundary conditions of relative unpleasantness.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  3. FKA Max says:

    Quite fascinating synchronicities…

    Hawking’s death, Einstein’s birth, and Pi Day: what does it all mean?

    Hawking’s birth and passing align with the most important names in science. He was born on January 8, 1942, the 300th anniversary of the death of famed astronomer Galileo.

    Hawking passed on March 14, the same day fellow theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was born.

    • Replies: @Dave from Oz
    , @Wally
  4. VICB3 says:

    “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

    (Also known as “Science advances funeral by funeral.”)

    -Max Planck*

    A celebrity Big Bang theorist who for too long has dominated the conversation is gone. Perhaps now a place at the table will be made for other valid but competing viewpoints that contradict the mainstream narrative concerning the origin of the Universe. These would include a Steady State Universe that is electric in nature, the Big Bang never happened, Dark Matter is really just theoretical cosmic duct tape, it’s the energy of light that is constant and not the speed, and all the present complicated and convoluted math is the High Energy Physics equivalent of the epicycles of Medieval Earth Centered Cosmology.

    Heresies to be sure, but the History of Science is the history of heresies that proved correct.

    It will be interesting to see what new ideas will come forth in the next few years.

    Just a thought.


    *The exact quote is subject of a bit of discussion and debate:

  5. Hawking’s theories were so complex that if he wanted to he could have composed a completely ridiculous but seemingly complex theory and a lot of people would have said, “How wonderful .” I do believe that he was way off base when he stated the human race would have to find another planet to live within two hundred years or face extinction. That planet does not exist which would not only be reachable but could also duplicate the life sustaining ingredients we have on earth. My theory is the human race will find a way to destroy itself well before 200 years from now, so his thoughts on this subject are moot.

    • Replies: @MBlanc46
    , @Wizard of Oz
  6. MBlanc46 says:
    @Simply Simon

    We’re really working at it.

  7. Jason Liu says:

    In the last few years some scientists have been painting him as a has-been, a senile old man ranting about threats of aliens wiping out humanity unless we colonize other planets. Probably good that he checked out before his reputation declined any further.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  8. @FKA Max

    The law of small numbers comes into effect, here.

    What is the law of small numbers? That there aren’t that many of them.

  9. dearieme says:

    The obit in this morning’s Tel was rather good. I’ll bet the libel lawyers had gone through it carefully. I think much of a page is well justified for someone so remarkable.

    In addition there was a much-of-two-pages piece by the Astronomer Royal. It too was justified. It was well done until, near the end, you discover this. “… his comments attracted exaggerated attention, even on topics where he had no special expertise – for instance, philosophy, or the dangers of aliens or intelligent machines.” That’s a bit bloody rich, coming from Lord Rees of Bonkers.

  10. 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.

    I noticed this growing up. It always seemed to me there were thresholds in school where people started hitting their comprehension limit, around age 14, age 16, age 18, age 21. I went off the math rails around Algebra II. I've long forgotten algebra; the most I have to do in my work is occasionally solve for x.

    Perversely, this phenomenon has been applied backwards to insist that educational intervention must be applied ever sooner to make sure we all end up with PhD’s. It’s superficially appealing. The Head Start teacher is thrilled with her neotenous charges comprehending shapes or the alphabet. It’s a different matter teaching a room full of intellectually diverse teenagers high school chemistry.

    Past a point, education hits diminishing returns and the focus should shift to training.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  11. Hawking’s example shows that the field of theoretical physics has pretty much died. At least it has stagnated since the 1970’s, by some physicists’ own admission.

    That would explain why these physicists seem to become bored or frustrated with their work, and some of them turn to lecturing us about other ideas through their popular writings. (Some of them also become greedy and go into quantitative finance):

    The alleged dangers of artificial intelligence: Hawking and Max Tegmark

    The evils of religion: Lawrence Krauss

    Human evolution, psychology and cognitive science: Leonard Mlodinow

    Writing science fiction: Hannu Rajaniemi

    Recycling sci-fi futurist nonsense from the last century: Michio Kaku

    Perhaps we need to bottleneck the production of new theoretical physicists for a few decades until we see the need for more of them. After all, world wide only about a thousand people can make a living as professional astronomers. We could probably get by with about that many theoretical physicists to teach the subject full time until conditions change.

    • Replies: @Bardon Kaldian
  12. He passed on the Einstein’s birthday, and Jerome Kern the magnificent US composer was born on 27, Jan, same date as Mozart, and myself a passionate Jazz performer having been born on 13 Oct, same date as the one of a kind jazz pianist : Art Tatum.

    SH another shit-talking BS artist such as the lot of phoney “Physicists” who have constructed their entire plethora of concepts upon a TIME-BASED viewpoint of this dimension, and thusly being invalid and absurd, as “Time” per se’ does not really exist and is only an agreement amongst humans, thusly obliterating all of the scientific Theory centered upon this totally erroneous cornerstone : Time.

    Einstein himself a BSer non-plus-ultra, his rediculous, infantile “Speed-of-light” axiom representing the ultimate of scientific nonsense and untruth : He , God-like entity that he was/is, throws out the idea that nothing can travel faster than : Light, and presto we have a new allotment of devine “law” held before us.
    Well he, AE, obviously was not aware of the phenomena of “Telepathy”: Thought transference which moves from sender to receiver instantly without lapse or movement of “Time”, thereby rendering his AE’s “devine” ruling as null and void.
    I could go on and on with examples of these con-artist’s malarky, but will cease here with this one elementary principle : throw enough dookey on the wall and some of it will stick and afford you a life-time of wealth and worship.

    Authenticjazzman “Mensa” qualified since 1973, airborne trained US Army Vet, and pro jazz musician.

  13. dearieme says:
    @The Anti-Gnostic

    “It’s a different matter teaching a room full of intellectually diverse teenagers high school chemistry.”

    That’s a silly way to organise a school.

  14. Michelle says:

    I really should not speak ill of the dead, so I won’t. RIP Mr Hawking.

  15. dearieme says:
    @James Thompson

    I have questioned the opiner. He says that the young, unfamous, not yet successful Hawking, happily married to his first wife, was not unpleasant. Otherwise he hews to his view.

    He added generous words about the behaviour of Hawking’s college, Caius, and particularly one of its Masters. So my acquaintance is quite capable of dishing out praise.

    Please don’t think I am animated by a dislike of mathematical physicists. The first distinguished one I knew was a lovely chap. My wife and I toasted him when he won his Nobel prize.

    • Replies: @Realist
  16. I am most grateful for your finely calibrated judgments!

  17. @advancedatheist

    Hawking’s example shows that the field of theoretical physics has pretty much died. At least it has stagnated since the 1970′s, by some physicists’ own admission.

    You certainly are right. It is Lee Smolin’s thesis that in past 25-30 years physics has not accomplished much (I would say that even after 1920/1930s nothing revolutionary had happened & that QED, QFT, QCD… are just variations on the theme, but this thesis is, perhaps, too radical).

    By the way, I don’t think that Hawking is more significant scientist than, say, Hugh Everett or de Sitter. He was a brilliant mind, but it was his tragic condition that fired popular imagination & catapulted him to global fame.

  18. Sean says:

    It only took one meeting for Demis Hassabis to shut up Hawking about future AI as an existential threat to humanity, as if Hawking was a superannuated scientist out of his depth. Physicists like Hawking urge us to embrace nuclear power, and artificial intelligence researchers like Hassabis also think they are bestowing a great gift on the population of the world.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
    , @Sean
  19. @Sean

    Interesting. Do not doubt that Hassabis would win out on that topic. Can you see me a link to the interchange between them?

    • Replies: @Sean
  20. Sean says:

    Since their meeting, Hassabis points out, Hawking has not mentioned “anything inflammatory about AI” in the press; most surprisingly, in his BBC Reith lectures last month, he did not include artificial intelligence in his list of putative threats to humanity.

  21. Sean says:

    Demis Hassabis Retweeted


    Feb 23
    Human social cognition begins with our theory of mind: understanding that others have beliefs, desires, and goals. In Machine Theory of Mind, we present a neural network that advances machine social cognition, learning to model what drives other agents.

    This may be true, although it sounds a bit like Dawkins’s assertion that the brain of a man catching a ball must be at a subliminal level be predicting the parabolic trajectory by something like differential calculations because that is the only way he could be estimate where it would come down. Gigerenzer points out that the catcher actually does it by means of a simple heuristic. Shell game scammers don’t need to have superior theory of mind or any theory at all. They just go through a tried and tested routine (and armed with it they fool much more intelligent people all the time).

    Libratus is most interesting because it’s managed to master a game where bluffing is a core, necessary component. Determining when and how to bluff separates adequate players from the truly transcendental, and bluffing is all about imperfect-information gaming, since it involves predicting or guessing at the unpredictable behaviors of an opponent who has a potentially completely different set of information from your own.

    Also, poker is a game that spans many individual hands, which means that in strategizing for overall victory a player has to be willing to take individual, strategic losses and look at the bigger picture. This is another element of complexity that’s not typically something computers are really great at managing.

    “The techniques that we developed are largely domain independent and can thus be applied to other strategic imperfect-information interactions, including non-recreational applications,” Sandholm and Brown concluded. “Due to the ubiquity of hidden information in real-world strategic interactions, we believe the paradigm introduced in Libratus will be critical to the future growth and widespread application of AI.”

    AI does not need to be operating with a theory of other minds to best them.
    When Pauling discussed the science of fallout, Teller turned it into an opportunity to talk about another side of nuclear science, a utopian future made possible by continued testing. He spoke of the development of clean explosives devoid of radioactive elements, of days when nonradioactive nuclear explosions could be used to crush rock for mining, dig canals, and possibly even increase oil production.

    Teller was an expert on some aspects of the subject under discussion and no doubt believed what he was saying, but he was very unreliable about the future (and his claim that Hitler type aggressive war would be prevented by nuclear weapons may be true, but the US and Soviets both having hugely expensive conventional forces in addition to nuclear overkill suggests the superpowers were not convinced). To be called “human level” in certain senses, AI would need to be equipped with theory of mind; yes, but the relevant criterion for an existential-threat AI would be the ability to best humanity, not to consciously comprehend what it was doing.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I think Hassabis is analogous to Teller and Hawking is the one to listen to about AI: “There’s no consensus among AI researchers about how long it will take to build human-level AI and beyond, so please don’t trust anyone who claims to know for sure that it will happen in your lifetime or that it won’t happen in your lifetime…

  22. @Sean

    Thank you. Would have loved to have been at the meeting, though I am sure that Hassabis did most of the thinking.

  23. Sean says:

    I imagine he did all of the bluffing (Hassabis loves poker). And he does think human type comprehension is something AI would need to acquire before it could pose an existential threat, he said that in backhanded way during a FT interview

    “We’re already happily letting computers design themselves. This has been going on for some time now, particularly with chips, and it’s not going to be long before that’s out of our hands, and we’ll be standing aside and saying, ‘Oh well, it’s doing a good job designing itself, let’s encourage it.’” Computers will develop independent volition and intuition (“To some extent, they already have”) and become capable of reproducing themselves, and of evolving. “Oh yes, that’s crucial. We’ll have a world where Darwin’s working.” Darwinism doesn’t work now? “Oh no, we’ve temporarily turned Darwinism backwards. I mean, we preserve the ones that would not have survived.”

  24. Mike1 says:

    He tapped into the human psychology of reflected intelligence better than most. People bought his book and put it somewhere visible to signal they considered themselves smart. It’s the same mentality as all the Armenians driving salvaged luxury cars around the Valley to signify that they are wealthy.

    Hawking proved with his endless group-think pronouncements a very limited intellect. The utter nonsense that the earth would be too hot to be inhabitable in a short period of time reflects an utter disdain of the basics of science and math.

    Scientists who are famous in this way are storytellers (not a compliment). Leonard Susskind claims that he grew up in “grinding poverty” and “I grew up in what can only be described as an extreme working-class family”. His Dad was a plumber…

    Hawking really made the best of an awful physical condition but he played everyone for a sucker. It is baffling that saying things that cannot be disproved makes you otherworldly smart in the eyes of most.

  25. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Well….he wasn’t a “modern-day Einstein.” But he was close enough.

    Now that he has pierced the “real” Event Horizon, I wonder where ol’ Steve is now.

  26. Wally says:
    @FKA Max

    Einstein the fraud, a highly promoted fake icon for fake Jew genius.

    Shyster Einstein even endorsed the absurd idea that countless Jews were steamed to death at fake ‘death camp’, Treblinka.
    ‘All Steamed up at Treblinka and superlatively accurate / The importance of the Steam Tales’
    Albert Einstein was a Fraud

    Einstein, plagiarist of the century

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  27. @Wally

    So, you don’t like Jews, then. Although you are very resistant to the idea that people feeling the same way as you do made a serious attempt to kill them all.

  28. Realist says:

    Please don’t think I am animated by a dislike of mathematical physicists.

    One of the greatest problems in physics today is that physicists allow or insist that mathematics drive physical inquiry. This has led to silly theories such as String Theory and Multiverse Theory.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  29. Neither Einstein nor Hawking was a polymath, but the mainstream media, which denigrate IQ, have ironically paid great attention to their views on a wide range of subjects having nothing to do with their scientific fields of study. This is because their views were those of the intellectual class, i.e., PC. This is my article on Einstein’s non-physics views:

  30. dearieme says:

    Here’s an oddity. In a letter to the FT, Christopher B Cooper, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Physiology at UCLA, writes “as a physician, I question whether he really had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)”. He considers that “an alternative diagnosis would be poliomyelitis …”

    What should we make of this? I have not the least idea. But I have formed an opinion on Dr Cooper: he has a tin ear. He begins his letter with “Sir, The death of Stephen Hawking is a moment of immense gravity”.

    Or perhaps it’s not evidence of a tin ear, but of the sort of heavy humour that makes sensible men flee.

    • Replies: @res
    , @Wizard of Oz
  31. res says:

    Letter available at
    I had to do a web search for the title to get access: “As a physician, I wonder whether Hawking had polio rather than ALS”

    I think it’s a combination of a bit of a tin ear and an attempt not to lose perspective of the human side of the question (perhaps pro forma).

  32. @Simply Simon

    Can you elaborate on what Hawking said about miving to live on other planets which sounds so absurd? The speed of light presumably remains a limiting factor. If the nearest habitable exoplanet is more than about 5 light years away then the only solution would appear to be to send DNA to be turned into humans and other animals under the control of AI.

  33. @dearieme

    The latter probably. I think he should have availed himself of the right to be Anon.

  34. @Realist

    What’s wrong with Multiverse Theory apart from it being difficult to see how it could ever be tested?

    • Replies: @Realist
  35. @Jason Liu

    Note please #33 as it is at present @ Simply Simon

  36. Realist says:
    @Wizard of Oz

    It is a mathematical construct with no basis in the physical world, like string theory. If it can’t be tested it can’t be proven wrong.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  37. Fine but I think it leaves your “silly” as a bit superciliously dismissive. After all the idea of the multiverse is an old one which can serve simply to show up the lack of justification that our own Big Bang led to the only stuff that can ever exist. Whether our Big Bang was the kind of spontaneous combustion ex nihilo described by Hawking and Mlodinov or the work of a Creator who felt lonely and bored (that btw is the explanation which solves, because it dissolves, the problem if evil, so should appeal to Deists) it is clear that a trillion trillion universes is just as plausible as one.

  38. @Realist

    I have just listened to this

    The very smart Prof Brian Greene says string theory is provable although the Large Hadron Collider still hasn’t turned up anything relevant.

  39. Realist says:

    The very smart Prof Brian Greene…


    He’s smart because you agree with him.
    If he is so smart why is he involved in String Theory?

    Let me know if they turn up anything.

  40. Sean says:
    @James Thompson

    Do not doubt that Hassabis would win out on that topic

    Demis Hassabis once created a game called Evil Genius in which the objective was world domination and the means was to kidnap scientists from all over the world and force them to work for you .

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