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Stephen Hawking as saint and celebrity



The rush to pay tribute to cosmological colossus Stephen Hawking had an air of reflex about it. People paid their respects, but many were not entirely sure why. He'd be missed, but in what way?

Stephen HawkingBasic, bare bones knowledge of his scientific contribution has been cited: his popular text A Brief History of Time, quantum gravity, the study of black holes, singularity and the origins of the universe. Such is the way of all celebrity, even those rare intellectual ones who manage to burst the celluloid barrier of mass marketing. They become symbols in their time, ciphers of an age.

For scientists, it is the Einstein effect, whose theories can be popularised in a few characters; whose face and gray-white hair can be moulded as prudently saintly.

Hawking became a spectacle of the body triumphant, soldiering on against Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He could be seen moving with ageless routine purpose on King's Parade in Cambridge; his carer like an imperial consort, hovering over him.

The ceremony would continue to dinners at Gonville & Caius, were he was a fellow for five decades and noted for his 'uproarious' wheelchair antics in Hall. Being assisted over his meals was itself an instance of ceremony. Students treated a glance from him as being touched by greatness.

That said, college residents would babble less about lofty theory than matters of the flesh: he had, after all, divorced twice. The naughty fellow married his nurse, they would say. Then came the one-upmanship, a sort of competitive game of Hawking spotting: SH spotted in pub; SH almost run over by incautious cyclist; SH driving over undergraduate's foot.

On the intellectual soapbox, Hawking became pundit extraordinaire. He specialised as a purveyor of warnings: be wary of replying to signals from another planet; artificial intelligence 'could be the worst event in the history of civilisation'; fear exponential population growth.


"The Hawking outpouring is a reminder that human societies seek saints. The incurable paradox of sainthood is that individuals who observe it rarely know much of the figure."


A participant in comedy, a winner of medals; few other physicists came close to Hawking in the stakes of mass appeal. Could it be that it was precisely this ensemble of disease, chair, synthesised voice, sagacious views — like Einstein with moustache and wild hair — that made him appealing?

Consider the view of Cambridge history student, Maddy Ducharme. 'His work is a testament to human determination.' Ditto physics student Arno Liu, who penned Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night' into the college condolence book.

Even the college Master, Sir Alan Fersht, could not avoid referencing a surface frailty combined with a character that seemed 'indestructible'. His college tribute observed that Hawking had been 'transformed into a scientific phenomenon himself thanks to the technology he used to overcome the ever-worsening symptoms of motor neurone disease'.

Illness, determination and physics became the popular Hawking package. Yet David Lindley, writing for the London Review of Books in 1992, noted that Hawking the star was not Hawking the colleague. 'Scientists who know Hawking and work with him tend to protest that once one gets past the obvious disabilities, he is a scientist like any other, with theories and ideas and opinions.'

Enter, then, the theory that ALS had a transformative effect, galvanising a bright but wayward mind, assisting, by Hawking's own admission, to bolster cogitation.

Prior to being diagnosed at 21, he was, according to biographers Michael White and John Gribbin, a bright though 'listless' and charm-free student. Then, even as he struggled to find a PhD research topic under cosmologist Dennis Sciama, he was struck. Left with what was presumed to be a few years left of life, Hawking thrived.

The Hawking outpouring is a reminder that human societies seek saints. The incurable paradox of sainthood is that individuals who observe it rarely know much of the figure. Exploits are often misunderstood, let alone known.

Hawking possessed a relentless genius in one essential respect: he popularised the complex, giving discussions about the universe an accessible touch. Such success may have been impossible without the accompanying struggle brought upon by a focusing illness that was held at bay till the age of 76.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Stephen Hawking



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Existing comments

Hawking didn't let misfortune call the shots in his life. He was a true eccentric too. That's a fine way to be remembered.

Pam | 15 March 2018  

I suspect Stephen Hawking, now sainted, has been having a great time over the past few days. Perhaps the conversation went something like: Welcome aboard Stephen. I must say that it is a pleasure to welcome you to my communion. I was very impressed by your efforts to reveal the greatness of my creation and I must say that you came close, but not quite close enough, to the truth. But you tried and used the talent I gave you and I didn't expect anything more than that. Let me take you on a tour of the establishment where everything that occupied your intellect on Earth will become so much clearer. Don't be too dismayed if you don't immediately understand everything that I will show you. Sometimes even I find it incredible even though I designed it! And, believe me, I'm not a particularly big-headed fellow - I abandoned such human traits when the humans crucified me in the personage of my son. But I must warn you. What you will see will confound even the remarkable intellect I gave you and I know that you will be champing at the bit to go back and reveal what I am about to show you to all those dons and scientists who paid homage to every one of your strangely processed words. But Stephen, you can't go back and that is just as well. Because if you reveal the galactic truth of my universe they will not believe you and will ridicule and persecute you. Look what they did to me despite seeing some of the extraordinary things I did when I joined them temporarily on Earth. But not to worry, you will be very happy here and there will be much to occupy your mind. Come now and I will show you what's on the other side of that black hole over there. I must say that its great to see you free of that wheelchair now and able to speak to me with the voice I gave you rather than through that electronic gismo the human healers gave you. Come on, then. Let's go!

john frawley | 16 March 2018  

Thanks, Binoy - good to get such a gently probing article on the subject.

Anne | 16 March 2018  

There would be those who idolize SH(saintify him) because of his inimitable way of dethroning issues of religious faith and belief. All grist for the mill in these days of adventurous bric-a-brac about who we are, how we got here and where we are going. Early last century the notable Jewish German philosopher Martin Buber was writing against what he termed an 'age of alienation'. He also posed his critique of what he called 'outworn images of God'. So, in a way thankyou, Stephen,for your stirs. We believers do need to move on, ever reluctantly so, to grasp the Pauline horizons of Ephesians 3:18.

Fr. Paul Goodland | 16 March 2018  

More than the things he got right in science was his readiness to stick his neck out and make the odd mistake - and acknowledge it when that turned out to be the case. At least in my experience, science is supremely a social enterprise, and is not about the lonely genius caged in either by unpopularity or physical suffering, but about one's pig-headed obsession with ferreting out the unconscious prejudices on one's own work (before going after the mote in another's). This Hawking did, by and large, in his science; and for the good of posterity this is what matters. I didn't like or agree with everything he espoused. But I had enough nous to listen. Was he a saint? No more or less than the rest of us still scrabbling around to achieve something like decency. And no saint has ever been perfect, for which we may thank God; there's hope for us all.

Fred Green | 16 March 2018  

Thank you Binoy Kampmark for your article about Stephen Hawking. I suspect, however, that Hawking would be the first to deny he was a saint if he knew that people were describing him so! He, of course, was a brilliant physicist and leading researcher of the cosmos and he had the ability to inspire the general public’s interest in this. The facts that he lived to 76 years and had a brilliant career despite being diagnosed with a crippling disease at an early age, was told that he would die within three years and had to rely on a wheel chair and a speech synthesiser have added to his appeal. Recently, I read that Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, said that not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people. I am sure that both men were very popular because of public interest in new scientific discoveries. They both had difficulties in life. Albert Einstein had to escape Nazi Germany because of his Jewish background.. And both scientists championed progressive causes and both had the ability a common touch , Stephen Hawking warned about climate change, opposed the US-led wars on Vietnam and Iraq, and supported universal health care. He also supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and was a vehement critic of capitalism’s excesses, And Einstein was a pacifist, a human rights activist and a socialist. We should be grateful that two such brilliant scientists with well developed social consciences lived amongst us.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 16 March 2018  

The author seems underwhelmed by the pure (as opposed to the applied) scientific endeavour to understand the universe - the place in which we live. Perhaps he prefers the revealed truth. Newton, Einstein and Hawking amongst others will be remembered through history much as is Pythagoras although their memory will become invested in the mythology that comes with the myst of time much as with Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. Although this assumes that civilisation survives its own inventions; nuclear weapons, the human overpopulation of this planet (a combination of medical science and religious aversion to contraception) and profligate consumption of fossil fuel.

Kenneth Cooke | 16 March 2018  

A nice piece of writing Binoy, since you celebrated the genius of the self-proclaimed atheist Stephen Hawking in the light of sainthood. Stephen fitted the profile: able to bridge the gap between mystery and personal vulnerability with rare eloquence. All humanity loves to see courage and transcendence at work in an individual with brilliant ability. John Frawley I love your response and the image of the 'other side' but it seems that you support the 'Intelligent Design' theory. The Vatican astronomer and physicist Guy Consolmagno SJ says that 'God is the reason why existence itself exists. God is the reason why space and time and the laws of nature can be present for the forces to operate (that Stephen Hawking talks about).' Rather than speaking of God's 'intelligent design' for the cosmos, perhaps it would be better to call it 'intelligent Mind.'

Trish Martin | 16 March 2018  

What joy it was to hear Philip Adams (on ABC LNL 14.3.18) say, with audible emotion, something like: "Vale Stephen Hawking and thanks for clearing away some superstitions about this universe. I fondly imagine you passing through one of your beloved black holes and finding yourself in another universe, young and in complete health!" To this New Testament-believing Catholic Christian, Philip's eulogy sounded rather familiar. I mean, e.g.: "The Realm of God is close . . ." Amazing to hear an atheistic intellectual commending a departed outspoken atheist to what sounds like the promises of Christ! Yet, we're not universalists and last Sunday's Gospel Reading still resonates: "Whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because they have refused to believe in the Name of God's Only Son." (John chapter 3). We obfuscate the entire Apostolic teaching when we imagine that any quantity of good works and clean living will merit eternal life. Without clinging to Christ's redemptive perfection none of us has the slightest chance of eternal life. Stephen Hawking and Philip Adams, like all of us, have had ample opportunity to seek for the Realm of God. Christ's guarantee is that if we genuinely seek, we will find Our Redeemer and so be made ready to face the judgement of King Jesus in Glory. Dear Philip - that's what is on the other side of the black hole of human death. And, it's God's grace that "By this Gospel you are saved." 1st Corinthians 15:2.

Dr Marty Rice | 16 March 2018  

The striking difference, to me, between Hawking and Einstein was that Hawking was an atheist, whilst Einstein was not. Einstein had a far greater ability to explain why he believed in a God, whereas, Hawking said nothing to support his non-belief. For that reason alone, for me, Einstein was a far greater thinker.

Peter Flood | 16 March 2018  

Interesting comment, Peter Flood. What strikes me is that so many of the great intellectuals who believe in a God have a reason for believing, a proof which is to them valid, even though that proof may lie in their own inability to fathom the incredibility of what they understood of the creation they studied and explored. It is a proof steeped in humility and acceptance of something greater than themselves. I have yet to come across an atheist, however, who has promulgated a proof for the non-existence of God. Perhaps in the appreciation of their own intellects, they see themselves as supreme?? Hubris defeating humility??

john frawley | 17 March 2018  

STEPHEN HAWKING (2) Death comes snatching back a worn out body well past its time for claiming. A meeting-tryst held in abeyance by the ongoing advance of human techno-genius and your determined will! Stephen we celebrate the immensity of value and possibilities your one frail life has brought to this human journey. Here your uniqueness of mind held inextricably attached to this ultra-fragilty of body finds now an ultimate quietence. It's many achievements and unfinished potentials now assigned as the legacy of one on whose shoulders we stand and scan the future. So Stephen prophet and magus for this age of exponential discovery of complex uncertainty of immense anxiety. You go your way amidst the conundrums of our humaness whilst we similarly await our time for such an omega journey. But never with such illustrious and contrasting trajectories as yours. Stephen Your determination to live encourages us to use what we have for purpose beyond ourselves. For you Struggle and adversity now complete your legacy --- immense.

John Cranmer | 17 March 2018  

Hawking was an a-theist .... in the sense of against the vision of a god presented by mainstream churches/religions who all talk of justice, but with no action. We are all too greedy to know the mind of God and cast our own human judgment on our fellow man in ther hear and now, simply because our outr own insecurities about having a ticket to heaven. Hawking abandoned that faithless security and opened himself up. Only heaven knows.

AURELIUS | 18 March 2018  

Dear Aurelius, in your enthusiasm for the dear departed - whose mathematical physics depended on a strictly logical analysis of the facts currently available to us - you have breached that same covenant with truth by saying that "the Church talks of justice without action". Please be informed that we'd have a far more horrid world without the immense and globally-concerned labors of pro-human, Christian charities and social justice movements and their many selfless workers. Please check out, for example, www.caritas.org.au

Dr Marty Rice | 19 March 2018  

Dear John Cranmer, I enjoyed the cadences of your elegant comment. Yet, find myself far from your "complex uncertainty of immense anxiety". What is complex or anxiogenic about: "You do not believe because you are no sheep of Mine. The sheep that belong to me listen to My voice; I know them and they follow Me. I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from Me" (John 10: 26-28). What could be plainer or more assuring than that? The promises of science to explain everything have, in this very day, failed categorically (please view 'Humanitarian Cosmology', free on the web). At the cosmological level, the quantum level, the bio ecological level, and the anthropic level, human cognition has reached its limits. We have no future among the stars and are about to destroy the livability of our own planet. When will it ever dawn on us that our existence is about pre-eternal, ethical maturing; not about futile attempts at physically mastering the cosmos. We must stop confusing material trivia with what truly matters, before it is too late.

Dr Marty Rice | 19 March 2018  

Dr. Marty Rice, the anxiety is concerned with what is still unknown about our existence. It is the fear of not being in control. Our intellects are still expanding, and science is still evolving, so do not despair. Jesus said that the way to life is a narrow pathway, but its narrowness produces immense expansion in the way a singularity can ricochet outwards into an expanding trajectory. Death is a singularity which opens outwards into infinite love and boundless life, according to the teachings of Christ.

Trish Martin | 20 March 2018  

Dear Trish Martin, many thanks for conversing. Where in Jesus Christ's teaching do you find: "Death is a singularity which opens outwards into infinite love and boundless life"? Certainly, 1st Corinthians 2:9, affirms God has prepared for those who love God things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard; and, that are beyond human cognition. How is this accessed? Hebrews 9:27 is clear that humans die once and are judged. The Gospel authors report Christ's accounts of that judgment as a separation: wheat/weeds; sheep/goats; edible fish/inedible fish; etc. A high degree of attention is asked of us all; yes, even healthy fear (see Luke 12:5). Science helps us understand the immensity, complexity and great age of our universe - all with one aim, so that God's loving children can be birthed (Romans 8:19). Of ultimate importance, this is ethically logical and doesn't depend on human self-improvement but has everything to do with FINDING God in Jesus Christ and, in love, submitting to Christ's commands. Down the ages, people of all religions (e.g. Zoroastrians, Jews, Samaritans, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Moslems, Atheists, Pagans) in their millions have found Christ. How ironic: so many among us now prefer fairy stories. All the best from Marty

Dr Marty Rice | 20 March 2018  

Dear Dr. Marty Rice, the idea that death can be thought of as a singularity has emerged from my apprehension of Christ's suffering on the cross. He alone endured the suffering to the point that he felt abandoned by his God. The Cistercian author Thomas Keating says that at the singular point of death, Jesus passed over from human to divine subjectivity which we call the Paschal mystery. Christ needed no judgment. For us the tradition talks about a divine judgment that mediates the passing of death to eternal life, but our evolved spiritual understanding of this now allows for better language and concepts with words like transformation and enlightenment in the passing over episode. Salvation comes to those who have faith, hope and love and Jesus said the greatest of these is love. It is my belief that death is a singular point in time for each individual which holds the possibility of transformation where those aspects of our 'selves' that do not conform to divine love are worked through and transformed. "Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed" Luke 12:2. Every hidden part must come into the light, and this is the judgment, after being emptied of the earthly junk we then enter absolute nothingness (Keating) and come to enlightenment and salvation of personhood. What the end result could be is a consciousness of personal union with the Trinity in boundless joy. Most evident in all of Jesus' teachings is the imperative to bring about life in each other through engagement with the life of the Father whose order is to flourish and grow towards God's eternal light. Self-emptying is the dynamic that promotes God's activity. My question is: Is God's eternal consciousness the formless mode of 'Being' and the Word incarnate through death, is what gives God's 'Being' metaphysical form? Philippianes 2:5, 7-8 says 'Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ..... emptied....obedient to divine love.....'

Trish Martin | 21 March 2018  

Hi Trish, many thanks for such an intellectually-rich contribution. I'll be thinking about some of what you wrote for quite a while. My path is threadbare in comparison: "Seek - Find - Love - Obey - Inherit Life Eternal" (just the five fingers on one hand). To try to go to God, other than through Jesus Christ, seems impossible to me. Yet, is this not the main Christian critique of the message of guru Fr Thomas Keating - that he attempts to immerse himself in god without going through the One that God gave us to be our gateway? You mentioned Jesus' cry from the Cross. I'm sure you'd have read (and been profoundly moved like I am) Psalm 22, which is what Jesus quoted. The whole psalm mounts up to the deepest certainty and reliance on God. The Jewish people who heard Jesus would have instantly recognised the full message: out of immense pain, desertion and rejection - an unshaken faith and expectation of total divine victory and joy forever. This same Victor over sin and death - Jesus now glorified - is close and promises to be with us even to the end of time. Surely that's good news, indeed? All the best from marty

Dr Marty Rice | 21 March 2018  

Singularity ; physics mathematics; a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space–time when matter is infinitely dense, such as at the centre of a black hole. Was Christ's Resurrection indeed a universal, cosmic event? I wonder what Mr Hawking thought of this possibility.

AO | 22 March 2018  

Dear AO, good to see you setting the boundaries for scientific and theological disciplines. It's important to have a mutually-profitable dialogue but not the sort of mish-mash merger exploited by some popular preachers. In regard to: "Was Christ's resurrection a universal event?" 'Ethical Encounter Theology' (Griffith University PhD thesis free on line) offers evidence for an ethical cause for material cosmogenesis, itself intended to resolve the cosmic ethical anthropic problem without compromising freedom of choice. The New Testament is far in advance of its day in placing Christ's sacrifice prior to the Big Bang (e.g. 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8b; etc.). This inspired concept of time as simply an axis, greatly extended Old Testament cosmology and opened the way for us to see God providing the solution to the problem prior to the beginning of space-time/energy-matter. It also increases our appreciation of Christ as the alpha and omega. Peter's epistle explains: in this last age of time, we've been privileged to see the universal ethical cause-and-goal fleshed in our history; the divine pre- and post-universal visible as an actual human. Like Peter, both scientists and theologians have a plethora of reasons to love Jesus Christ . . .

Dr Marty Rice | 23 March 2018  

Dear Dr Rice, thank you for your paper online. Science is simply the attempt to understand God's creation. All attempt to understand, and love God/ Christ, via any medium is meritable.

AO | 26 March 2018  

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