Our scientific community needs to derive and learn from Stephen Hawking’s life, while grieving his demise. It is for the benefit for the society that it is high time that our scientific community becomes serious communicators of science.
The scientific community and the public at large have been grieved by the sad demise of Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant scientists of all time. There are several lessons that the world can derive from Hawking’s life. First, here was an indomitable spirit which surmounted a physically disabling disorder known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and which in most cases would have led a lesser person to just give up on life. But despite this shattering disability, Hawking’s mind maintained a level of brilliance and innovative activity that many even in excellent physical condition would not even have dreamt of. The second aspect of this remarkable scientist’s attributes was his rare ability to take science to the common man.
Hawking’s biggest contribution lies in his ability to show that it was possible to communicate the most complex scientific theories and findings in a manner that even the average layman would be able to make some sense of. He endeavoured to show, for instance, that black holes are the gravitational force of the cosmic reality from which not even light can escape.
By researching into the entire phenomenon of black holes, he was able to derive revolutionary knowledge and formulate startling truths about the universe. Hawking’s work had major implications on relativity and the Big Bang. Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, sold over 10 million copies and was translated into over 30 languages.
It is reported that he commented on his book after it had become a bestseller, “I know that the book is difficult. It does not matter too much if people can’t follow all the arguments. They can still get a flavour of the intellectual quest.” Many scientists have neither the patience nor adequate respect for people who may not have anything close to their own level of knowledge, and they, thus, promote a continuation of the gulf between persons of science and the public.
Hawking was confined to a wheelchair for the last several decades, and had to use a voice synthesiser, since he had lost his own ability to speak. It is
particularly important to derive the conclusion — so aptly personified by Hawking’s life — that mind certainly succeeds over matter.
A more generalised and significant conclusion is the fact that even the most brilliant scientist needs to ensure that in this century, science must reach the common man because after all, the very purpose of scientific discovery is to remove the mysterious and magical aura around scientific phenomenon. Throughout history, science and scientists have been the subject of considerable awe and in some cases a high level of superstition. In this day and age, there is no room for such a distance being allowed to continue because our lives are now influenced at an unprecedented level by scientific developments. Whether we look at implications of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being used in agriculture, the use of robots and drones deployed for a range of economic activities or advances in the use of artificial intelligence, our lives will be deeply influenced by the march of science.
Who, for instance, could have imagined even at the turn of the century the scale at which and the multiple applications for which smartphones are being used today. Any assessment of scientific developments and their human and societal impacts can only be discussed and debated in a democratic system if the public has some minimal understanding of their complexities and overall implications in respect of our lives and the risks and benefits they carry. For, science, as never before, guides the lives of individuals and society today, given the serious and widespread impacts of scientific discovery and innovation.
Most recently, just days before his death, Hawking had completed a paper co-authored with Professor Carlos Frenk of Durham University in the United Kingdom, in which he explained how there may be other universes beyond our own cosmos. It is reported that the knowledge contained in this paper would help astronomers look for evidence that our universe is only one among many forming part of the “multiverse”, which consists perhaps of an infinite number of universes.
With his superior intelligence and insight, Hawking was also convinced that the human species is not likely to survive, and that we would need to colonise other planets if we really want human existence to continue. He was concerned about environmental degradation and damage to the earth’s ecosystems and was logically, therefore, a strong proponent of action to deal with climate change.
The fact that Hawking held very strong beliefs on various subjects, ranging from politics to the future risks that the human race would face, shows that even while attaining extraordinary brilliance, he never remained confined to an ivory tower. He was generally a supporter of the Labour Party in the UK; was critical of the private sector; and strongly supported the National Health Service in his own country.
It was his superior intellect and ability to look beyond the confines of that human mind which were perhaps responsible for his belief that the human race may not survive this century. He was concerned about the dangers from the worsening impacts of climate change.
He stated, “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. By denying the evidence for climate change, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children.”
He was also deeply concerned about the dangers of a possible growing dependence on artificial intelligence which could lead to destruction of the human race. His view of artificial intelligence can best be summed up in his own words pointing out that “the potential benefits are huge… Success in creating Artificial intelligence would be the biggest event in human history. It might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”
Far beyond the actual content of Hawking’s work, what is significant for us is the fact that his legacy convinces us to look at science not with an attitude of awe and distant wonder, but in terms of its implications for our daily lives and the benefits and risks it may carry for everything on this planet.
The scientific community across the globe can pay no greater tribute to Hawking than to take this aspect of his legacy to heart and become serious communicators of science for the benefit of society at large.
(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)
Writer: R K Pachauri
Courtesy: The Pioneer