This edition of the always-worthy Horizon popular science show contains two paradoxes; that of Professor Stephen Hawking’s greatest mistake, along with his great self-correction; and in the potted history of Hawking’s life, the paradox of Hawking’s place in science…
Hawking is known around the world, a rock-star among physicists, iconic for his wheelchair and electronic voicebox, one of the most famous scientists of all time, infiltrating pop-culture to appear in the Simpsons and Star Trek TNG. Not least, because medical science says he should be dead long since, furthering his iconic status as the genius trapped in an immobile body. Yet ask his peers and he rates below the all-time top twenty physicists; it seems his reputation outshines his actual contribution.
Hawking’s fame begins with his mathematical proof for the Big Bang theory, no less than the birth of our universe from a singularity, an infinitely small point with infinite density and infinite gravity. Hawking’s career is dominated by his long obsession with black holes; a tangle of quantum effects, infinite mass, infinite gravity, muddied by shifting mathematical proofs, parallel universes and the fact that by common agreement the whole thing doesn’t work. Newton and Einstein’s large scale physics break down in collision with quantum physics.
As one of the foremost physicists of his generation, working at the margins of factual knowledge and trying to resolve conjecture with mathematics, Hawking’s most challenged theorem is Hawking Radiation, by which a black hole might evaporate and disappear. His peers stuck to the established wisdom that information cannot be lost. At a quantum level you could reconstruct anything in the universe if you could assemble the constituent particles.
This lead him to formulate the Information Paradox, the destruction of information in the evaporation of a black hole, which contradicted the base pillars of theoretical physics, cause and effect. It threatened every certainty in physics. Hawking defended it over thirty years, it led one opponent to dub Hawking ‘the most stubborn man in the universe.’ That is, until Hawking had to admit that he’d been wrong all along, but not because of the mathematical proof provided by brilliant young Juan Maldacena which preserved the old order.
Working on through illness and failing health, Hawking presented in 2004 a new theory to resolve the Information Paradox. Hawking appeared to prove that like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive in a quantum state, anything falling into a black hole past the event horizon will both be annihilated and preserved.
It’s a rare thing for a renowned physicist to admit an error, better to replace one incorrect theory with a new proof of one’s own devising, even if it is even more esoteric than the old one. The conference of his peers remains unconvinced.
The one certainty we got by the end of this programme is that the man in the chair still has a huge ego to go with his huge intellect, desperate to resolve his theory of everything before ill health stops him working entirely. You can’t help but think it’s all a little to convenient, but better minds – including his research assistant – struggle to disprove his equations even now.
Hawking notoriously rations what borrowed time he has left, so Horizon got no interview, no direct comments, no insight into the man’s personality or state of mind. Everything came from friends, rivals, his research assistant. We’re left with the icon in the chair and the work. It is impossible to know what the Hawking legacy will be. His supporters believe he may have found the elusive, unifying Theory of Everything, that escaped Einstein. His opponents are looking for that chink in his equations. It took twenty years for Maldacena to break down the first theory. AJS