A Brief History of Stephen Hawking: Beginnings and Endings

By Bushnell, Jack | Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of Stephen Hawking: Beginnings and Endings


Bushnell, Jack, Michigan Quarterly Review


In Errol Morris's 1992 film, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking's mother Isobel says that her son's disease "concentrated his energies" and she describes him as "lucky," partly because he "came back from a disaster" and partly because he'd always had the ability to "live in his head," a fact which has rendered the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis significantly less disabling for him than it might have been for someone less cerebral. Diagnosed with ALS at twenty-one and given only two and a half years to live, Hawking is a child of luck and chance who has eluded time for more than thirty-five years. Dismissing Einstein's claim that "God does not play dice," Hawking counters in his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988) that quantum mechanics has introduced "an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science"; or, as he puts it more strongly elsewhere, "all the evidence indicates that God is an inveterate gambler and that He throws the dice on every possible occasion" (Black Holes and Baby Universes, and Other Essays, 1993). Against this random universe, Hawking places what his mother calls his "very intense" belief in "the infinite possibility of the human mind." As his body degenerates, he explores time in reverse, searching for origins, for explanations and the meaning inherent in beginnings. As the power of his mind grows, he explores the future of an expanding universe, searching for the meaning and resolution inherent in endings. "If the universe is limited in its life," asks colleague John Wheeler in the film, "how is that different from the life of all of us?"

Over the past decade or two, proponents of what has come to be called "constructionist theory," as well as those more generally interested in "science studies" or the "rhetoric of science," have taught us to question the assumed objectivity or neutrality of scientific and technical discourse, and to recognize instead its socially constructed nature, its existence as a human (and therefore subjective) enterprise. Indeed, at its best (and here it follows the lead of such feminist commentators as Sandra Harding and Evelyn Fox Keller), this approach can be seen to challenge certain versions of authority and traditional sites of power by also challenging the rhetoric which creates them. As Greg Myers puts it in Writing Biology: Texts in the Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (1990), scientific texts have largely been "treated as if they are just vehicles for the communication and validation of technical knowledge, not themselves shapes of that knowledge." Interestingly, while recognizing science's "shape," Myers has little to say about its influence as a shaper, both of knowledge and public perception. He does, however, later observe that science "uses our language, and despite all attempts to purify it, it is still loaded with social and political implications."

Alan G. Gross, in The Rhetoric of Science (1996), takes that idea a bit further, suggesting that "as rhetorical analysis proceeds unabated, science may be progressively revealed not as the privileged route to certain knowledge but as another intellectual enterprise, an activity that takes its place beside, but not above, philosophy, literary criticism, history, and rhetoric itself." Likewise, David Locke, in Science as Writing (1992), asserts that "every scientific text must be read, that it is writing, not some privileged verbal shorthand that conveys a pure and unvarnished scientific truth." Moreover, he captures the subjective nature of science nicely when he comments that "the scientist is a whole person, whose personality and experience cannot help but leave their mark on everything done, including the doing of the scientific work and the writing of that work."

But Locke, Myers, Gross, and others-despite their corrective reading of science as a body of created texts, rather than as the articulation of indisputable "truth"; despite Locke's recognition of the inescapable "mark" of a scientist's personality-are generally much more comfortable talking about the accumulated written work of entire scientific disciplines or the conventions of scientific discourse in general.

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