Image of Hawking
Release Date: 
July 2, 2019
First Second
Reviewed by: 

The graphic format of a biography of Stephen Hawking has advantages. For one, pictures explain the science. Even without fully grasping Hawking’s two universes connected to each other through a worm hole via imaginary time, the intrigue of the project visually impresses and uplifts.

But Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988) is also full of pictures. Bantam insisted on pictures (rather than equations) and Hawking, later in life, wrote for children. He liked pictures. He had a thing with metaphors: Black holes is one, collapsing stars another. He even embraced—for science—the leap of faith (nervously, as we see from the facial expression).

More significantly, graphic biography intertwines personal, emotional, and intellectual dimensions. Hawking was known in part for his disability. In graphic format, it is occasionally the focus, for instance, when first diagnosed and in 1985 when removing life support is considered; but mostly it is context.

It is part of the bigger picture. We see young Hawking rise to ask Fred Hoyle about diverging quantities of matter in a supposedly steady state universe. Concern for his physical stability is clear in the picture. But it is not the story. His deteriorating condition can be noticed, or not.

Mercifully, there is no “triumph of the human spirit,” just someone doing a job, dealing with vicissitudes, of which disability is one. We don’t learn how he “overcame,” if he did.  We see his life as a life and draw conclusions as we will. Not all is explained.

We see science as social endeavor, done by human beings with values and interests. Hawking misleadingly calls himself a positivist, making theories and testing them against experience. Positivism, roughly, is a view defining knowledge as beliefs deducted from direct observation. It failed more than half a century ago because there is no direct observation. Observation depends on beliefs.

Positivism is known to be false, and yet it still influences. It convinces some to debunk science. They notice scientists influenced by social, moral, political, and cultural values, and conclude that science is not objective. Or they notice that what was once considered true is no longer considered true, and they refer to “truth,” as if there is none.

There are no absolute truths, except uninteresting ones, like “everyone will die.” But to expect absolute truth is a misunderstanding of how we exist in the world, causally interdependent, including in the way we think. In this book, we see science as a dynamic social process, going forward and back, no researcher thinking alone. And yet it uncovers our world.

Hawking compares scientists to artists. Cosmology is highly speculative, as Hawking comments, but still empirically grounded. Einstein had to envision the curvature of space before two teams of astronomers, many years later, tested it out. Imagination makes testing possible.

The same happens in other deliberation. If you didn’t imagine a just world, even without evidence, you wouldn’t ask how to get there or why we’re not there yet.  If we can’t envision how the world might be, we don’t ask why it is the way it is in relevant respects. It doesn’t make sense to question what’s not surprising. We ask questions about what could be otherwise.

Which requires imagination. What ought to be and what is are necessarily intertwined, inside and outside science. European philosophers were mistaken when they separated facts and values and said you can’t get one from the other. It is not true.

Misunderstanding science has consequences. It leads otherwise progressive thinkers to condemn war and poverty, and then add on chemotherapy, saying it is “invasive,” not “natural.” It also explains denial of moral and human truths, making liberalism and anarchism attractive. We live in an “age of authenticity” emphasizing individual choice. That’s all that’s left when there’s no truth.

It’s a convenient view. “Who’s to say” what’s right and wrong? It’s “all good.”   We follow dreams not because they’re good but because they’re ours. If there’s no truth, we have no duty to find it, and certainly don’t need to sacrifice for it. 

But reasons for rejecting human and moral truths also disqualify science: the role of values, personal commitments, disagreement, unresolvable issues—no single answer.  All apply to science. At the book’s end, Hawking says he doesn’t always remember theorems, but he always remembers how it felt to be weightless. It’s a statement about his science, for sure, but also about human understanding.

Cuban philosopher Ernesto Limia argues that the ineffectiveness of the international left is explained by naivete about truth. Ultimately, it is naiveté about science. Hawking wanted the public to know cosmology. The goal matters more than the science alone.