Science, INC: On Mediating Stephen Hawking

January 10, 2015   •   By Ken Alder

HE LOOKS OUT AT US from the book jacket like a being descended from the stars. His oversized head is pale against the darkness, his eyes heavily lidded behind the glass frames. His expression is care-worn but benign. Behind his shoulders, the twin peaks of his chair rise like the folded wings of a pterodactyl or some dark angel. His withered hands rest on his lap. This is how Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist who suffers from ALS, appears on the American cover of his best-selling book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. Not only is it a best seller, but the best-selling book in the history of science.

The book is as slender as its title promises. Yet it claims to tell a big history, one that runs from the origin of the universe to the terminus of all things. (Those infamous black holes may presage a Big Crunch.) Ten million copies have been sold since the book appeared in 1988 — or as Hawking himself once put it, one for every 750 people in the world. Undoubtedly a smaller percentage of buyers have actually read it, and presumably a still smaller portion understood it. Does this matter?

Perhaps it is sufficient that a representative of our species — albeit an unusual one, with an immobilized body and a geometrical imagination — is able to reach out with his mind to the spatiotemporal edges of our cosmos, where he seeks to understand the “Mind of God,” the unitary deity who guarantees the world’s coherence. Or as the book’s blurb from Time Magazine put it in plain purple: “Even as he sits helpless in his wheelchair, his mind seems to soar ever more brilliantly across the vastness of space and time to unlock the secrets of the universe.”

It is a comforting thought. When the book first came out in 1988, my older cousin — a diplomat in his forties who was dying of cancer and leaving behind a wife and young child — told me that Hawking’s book had provided him with great solace. He found it reassuring that the fate of the universe could be grasped by a singular human mind, one which labored like his under the doom of his body’s betrayal. I was then in my twenties, with an undergraduate degree in physics and enrolled in a PhD program in the history of science, and I had the effrontery to disagree with him. The book, I suggested, offered no such comfort. Physics is what it is. But I was wrong. I see now that the book accords human beings a special and redemptive place in the cosmos. We may be an insignificant species among the millions of life-forms on our third-rate rock in our third-rate galaxy, yet we aspire to grasp our place in the whole — or at least, we have some representatives who try. The question is: what enables these scientists to succeed at their task?


In Hawking, Incorporated, her book about Stephen Hawking, Hélène Mialet doesn’t ask what the famous scientist has taught us about cosmology. She asks what his life and career can teach us about scientific thinking in general — and about ordinary thinking too, for that matter.

There is no doubt that Hawking is doubly exceptional, both in his mind and his body. The brilliant gambit of Mialet’s book is to explore this exceptionalism in order to reveal how scientific knowledge is made under far more ordinary circumstances. In a sense she has written a kind of micro-history, a form of history that explores specific and exceptional events or people so as to illuminate more general patterns.

In Hawking’s case, as exceptional as he is, the popular image of him as a "mind without a body" corresponds rather closely to the popular view that scientific discoveries are made by brainiacs who contemplate nature in splendid isolation. This, at any rate, is the myth we tell ourselves about the achievements of great theoretical physicists like Newton and Einstein, whose work Hawking claims to be carrying on. But historians have repeatedly shown that these famous figures were never as isolated as their reputations have led us to believe.

So it is with Hawking, despite his inability to move his body or employ any of the usual techniques by which scientists engage their colleagues, manipulate instruments, or even perform calculations. More than almost any other scientist, Hawking surely must labor alone. On the contrary, Mialet shows just how Hawking’s disability makes visible the social and mechanical interactions that enable scientists to do their job. By examining how Hawking’s simplest acts are mediated by people and machines — the computer which enables him to write and speak, the wheelchair which conveys him through space — we learn to see how all scientists understand their world through their interactions with other people and instruments.

In his recent biopic about Hawking, The Theory of Everything, James Marsh takes the opposite tack. The movie likewise makes the physicist out to be doubly exceptional, with his nonpareil mind and his body ravaged by a dread disease. But in the movie, it is Hawking’s bodily needs and frailties that are made achingly familiar. Where Hawking differs from the rest of us is in having the mental ability to transcend his body’s betrayal and continue his work, despite initially being given only two years to live. The biopic “humanizes” Hawking’s disabled body, even as it promises the lure of transcendence. Mialet is working the opposite side of the street. Where Marsh’s movie makes us like Hawking and feel for him, Mialet’s book makes us feel more like Hawking, for all his extraordinary talents. Readers are walked through the steps that take us from thinking thoughts to presenting them to others.

Mialet’s method is deceptively simple. Like an anthropologist, she follows Hawking around. She follows him through the elaborate routines that allow him to travel from an eye-blink “yes” to presenting a scientific paper in front of a rapt audience. She follows him as he operates his computer to answer pre-vetted questions. She follows him as he delegates problems to his students and “signs” his name to their work; as he collaborates with colleagues, thinking geometrically with and without diagrams; as he “plays” the media, repeating stories he has told many times before, even as, or precisely because, these stories portray him in ways that reinforce the myth of his singular genius. What she discovers is that the closer she gets to Hawking, the more she encounters a constellation of people around him: nurses, students, administrators, colleagues, editors, not to mention the producers of television shows, books, and films. Moreover, these people frequently anticipate Hawking’s wishes. They pre-program his computer to streamline his word choice. They guess at his ideas. They even make jokes on his behalf. The portrait of Stephen Hawking that emerges from these exchanges looks less like the photograph on the cover of A Brief History of Time than the organizational chart of a collective enterprise, which gives Mialet the title of her book, “Hawking, Incorporated.”

In a sense, Mialet offers us a dynamic history of the book’s acknowledgments page — surely any book’s most trite but revelatory section. In Hawking’s case, he thanks his family for making his career possible despite his bad luck in contracting ALS. He recalls his own wise choice in picking a career that didn’t depend overmuch on the body. He thanks his colleagues for collaborating with him in the early and later stages of his career, his students for developing his ideas and computer-based communication system, his editor for making his ideas comprehensible, and his assistants, secretaries, nurses, funders, and institutional supporters for making his life’s work possible. As these acknowledgments suggest, Mialet’s interpretation of the Hawking oeuvre, like all excellent interpretations, was hiding in plain sight all the time.

Just to be clear, Mialet’s portrait in no way diminishes Hawking or belittles his intellectual achievements or personal courage. (The book skirts any discussion of his romantic, domestic, or financial life.) The physicist shines through these pages as a creative and impish presence, disrupting expectations and nudging the entire enterprise in surprising directions. Mailet brings a gentle irony to her subject; her book builds to a delirious conclusion when we meet Hawking as he confronts a plaster statue of himself meant to “incarnate” his genius. The statue is silent and so too for a time is Hawking, until he joins the general joking about whether female students might occasionally be enticed to sit on the statue’s lap.

Hawking’s immobility may have forced him “to distribute” his capacities to a degree that is unusual — or at least unusually visible. But Mialet’s point is that scientists almost always rely on machines and collaborators. Experimentalists rely on instruments to produce the stylized slices of nature whose behavior they can then so rigorously describe. And theoreticians like Hawking not only rely on the results of those experiments, they use diagrams and other techniques of calculation, often pictured on the chalkboards of science-movie lore.

There is a reason we tend not to notice these interactions. The myth that scientists work in isolation reinforces the view that science is a form of knowledge uncontaminated by worldly interests. Isaac Newton has always been the poster boy for this ideal, with his snarly temper and haughty refusal to credit his contemporaries. That Newton was also a life-long celibate (as far as we know) further underscores the reputation of natural philosophers as men who spurned social entanglements — even as it reinforces the presumption that science is a male preserve.

Yet historians have shown that Newton’s Principia drew upon the reports of correspondents from around the globe. And we now know that many of Newton’s contemporaries drew on the labor of women — wives and sisters, mothers and daughters — who often worked without credit for their male-headed family firm, “Science, Inc.,” much in the way their artisanal brethren drew upon their families’ labor in the trades. And everyone drew on the labor of technicians, then as now often uncredited, who manipulated instruments, performed observations, or toted up lengthy calculations.

To be sure, there are minds who do some of their best work in silence, without the distraction of email or other online temptations. As Mialet notes, some of Hawking’s colleagues are oddly jealous of his apparent isolation; he has no choice, they say, but to concentrate. Yet, here again, his exceptionalism only proves the rule.

The rule is that science is collaborative. The current world record for the most authors on a single article in the natural sciences runs to over 3,000 names, meaning that the list of authors is longer than the paper itself. Even the average number of authors per paper recently passed five per article, having doubled since the 1980s, while the proportion of single-authored papers has dropped toward 10 percent. Disentangling the contribution of these multiple co-authors, not to mention the unlisted contributors, is a subtle art, as I have myself witnessed as a member of a university-wide tenure committee.

And not just in science. In his classic book, Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins argues that even the captain of a ship — our iconic figure of command — relies on subordinates and instruments to decide how to navigate. The astronauts in their capsule may not be “spam in a can,” but their contributions are guided by pre-set programs and mission control. People have been outsourcing their memories since literate societies began to store knowledge in text. The fact that we now rely on smartphones is not so much a “loss” as yet another redistribution of our cognitive abilities. Scientific thinking is no different.


The movie The Theory of Everything is an easy watch. It is a Hollywood biopic with superb acting and an uplifting message. That said, the break-up of the Hawkings’ marriage generates so few recriminations that his character becomes almost too exceptional to be believable. But the message is the familiar one: that science, like love, can overcome all obstacles.

Hawking, Incorporated is not an easy read. It is a scholarly book that deploys concepts from the field of science studies, though its jargon is carefully defined and used with precision. Mind you, the book is certainly an easier read than A Brief History of Time, with its famously knotty jargon drawn from relativity theory, high-energy physics, and cosmology. But what is jargon if not another tool, a shared vocabulary that allows students and colleagues to collaborate with ideas and instruments?

So, even if Mialet never teaches us much about Hawking’s achievements in cosmology, she offers an equally valuable lesson. His manner of work, she suggests, shows how cosmology — like particle physics, molecular biology, or historical research for that matter — is a collective endeavor in which creative individuals operate within networks of instruments and people. Scientific progress may well depend on the labor of minds that are exceptional to some degree, but what makes science succeed so exceptionally well is the collective nature of the enterprise. And that is something that I’d like to think my cousin would have found comforting. I certainly do. Stephen Hawking teaches us how human beings make science together.


Ken Alder teaches the history of science at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World.