Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Mystery of Stephen Hawking

My daughter’s boyfriend sent me a link to the Stephen Hawking piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why God Did Not Create the Universe.” Typical of me, I did not know about the article until it had gone viral.

What strikes me about the piece is not the title, which was probably written by a subaltern at the Journal’s copy desk. (In fact, the piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming book with the intriguingly ambiguous title The Grand Design.) Nor does the chilling message of the excerpt strike me particularly, as it seems to hinge on a single sentence: “As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” This sentence raises a few questions—including how dead certain or merely suggestive these “advances” are, and where you can get laws without a Legislator like the One we encounter in Psalm 119.

Still, what strikes me, after several readings, is none of the above. What strikes me is Stephen Hawking’s face.

For as long as I have been an adult, or nearly 40 years, Stephen Hawking has been a cultural icon: a latter-day Einstein tragically confined to a wheelchair and a battery of electronic support systems because of a progressive neuromuscular disorder similar to ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because he combines intellectual gymnastics with physical paralysis, and not because I have any wish to mock him, Hawking has always struck me as a disembodied brain in a chair. It takes only a short imaginative jump from this image to that of the Wizard of Oz, the disembodied head that terrorized Dorothy and company, until Toto pulled aside the curtain. Like the Great and Powerful Oz, Hawking has loomed over our culture, and when he speaks with a certain amount of electronic assistance, we feel obliged to listen. (Listen, tremble, but perhaps not judge carefully: I have never read a book by Hawking.)

Now comes this article with that face. It is the face of a man nine years older than I, a man who, since his birth in London under a V-2 barrage, has faced some terrifying challenges. But whatever his differences from me (does he have a daughter? does she have a boyfriend?), his face is a human one and that of a man who has made a career of confronting the Mystery.

The brief Journal piece begins with a snippet of Viking mythology, about two wolves who catch the sun and moon, thereby causing eclipses. The paragraph ends with amusement, to remind us that those silly old Norsemen did not have the benefit of our modern science: “After some time, people must have noticed that the eclipses ended regardless of whether they ran around banging on pots.”

But no matter how old or silly, they were just like you and me and Stephen Hawking—clutching our slippery cosmology while contemplating the Mystery with a human face.

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