There’s a new batch of commentaries on Stephen Hawking, and his career, prompted by the new biopic. Time, I think, to revisit Helene Mialet’s excellent study of Hawking, and “Hawking”, which argues convincingly that both are maintained by vast support networks. He, and his career, are indeed remarkable, but not for the reason most often proffered – that he somehow epitomises the power of the individual intellect.
(PS: Alice Bell points out that Mialet has a great piece about the Hawking movie, and her book, up on Scientific American’s site.)
Stephen Hawking is the most famous scientist alive. His name brings key facts and images to mind almost unbidden: the emaciated, twisted body, piercing eyes and robotic voice; the long tenure as Lucasian professor at the University of Cambridge, customarily glossed as the position once held by Isaac Newton; the crippled cosmologist whose thought soars towards, in his own words, “the mind of God”.
The combination is potent. How many can name his successor as Lucasian professor on his retirement in 2009? I’d be surprised if 1 per cent of those familiar with Hawking have heard of Michael Green.
For Helene Mialet, what we know is not Hawking but a construct she calls “HAWKING”, which is sustained by an extended network of nurses, postgraduate assistants, students and other ancillaries, further institutional support, plus indispensable media assistance. In this rather thorough exploration, she gives us a thick description of how this all works, interwoven with much discussion of distributed identities and personhood in performance.
Some of this replicates the familiar machinery of celebrity, but there is a key difference. Hawking is invariably presented as the epitome of the lone genius, a perfect Cartesian who, imprisoned within his body, has broken free, doing fundamental science purely through mental power.
Mialet shows how this is the opposite of the truth. A man who cannot speak, write equations or draw diagrams needs constant support to develop any cosmological ideas, even mainly pictorial ones. He is more tightly enmeshed in the networks of people and objects that allow him to live and work than it is easy to imagine.
This truth is systematically effaced from the support network’s public products, which are configured to cover their own traces. Although it recognises that he has nursing care, as far as the outside world is concerned Hawking-as-scientist functions alone.
In Mialet’s account, the extremity of his condition and the remarkable work he has still been able to achieve serve to emphasise how science relies on collective effort, not individual brilliance. The man in the electric wheelchair delegates innumerable tasks – intellectual, manual, administrative and communicative – to others because he has no choice: other effective researchers do so because it helps get their work done. In this light, Hawking’s scientific practice is abnormally normal.
Mialet develops this in chapters that examine different facets of the relationships and representations that surround Hawking – the assistants and machines, the research students, the production of cosmological diagrams, the media, the evolving Hawking Archive in Cambridge, and a first viewing of a statue of the thinker. She does not remark on the increasingly elaborate collective that works on his books, although this would underline her point, but there is a good analysis of the making of a Hawking-centred documentary.
A larger point also comes across clearly as the details of his life unfold. Some ingredients of the support system that produces HAWKING are old. His bodily care and the complexity of moving him from one place to another when a formal appearance is agreed would be familiar to popes, potentates and presidents. His media celebrity otherwise resembles that of film stars or sportspeople, trading busily in canned answers to predictably repeated questions, reported by legions of dutiful journalists. The faithful retinue of postgraduate assistants and students would have been familiar to a 19th-century German professor.
A new ingredient is the intimate integration of all this with a suite of new technologies – the state-of-the-art wheelchair, voice synthesiser, word-prediction software, laptop, email and internet connection. But this, too, suddenly seems familiar. Hawking’s physical limitations made him an early adopter of technologies that have now penetrated deep into everyday life. If he is, to some extent, cyborgised, the difference is one of degree. Cultivating an extended presence, even an extended mind, through technology nowadays makes Hawking emblematic not just of scientists, but of all of us. (August 2012)
Helene Mialet – Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject. University of Chicago Press.