Magazine article Times Higher Education

No Scientist Is an Island

Magazine article Times Higher Education

No Scientist Is an Island

Article excerpt

The 'lone genius' relies on others, says Jon Turney, our most famous living thinker particularly so.

Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject

By Helene Mialet

University of Chicago Press

272pp, Pounds 58.00 and Pounds 18.50

ISBN 9780226522265 and 522289

Published 23 July 2012

Stephen Hawking is the most famous scientist alive. His name brings key facts and images to mind almost unbidden: the emaciated, twisted body, piercing eyes and robotic voice; the long tenure as Lucasian professor at the University of Cambridge, customarily glossed as the position once held by Isaac Newton; the crippled cosmologist whose thought soars towards, in his own words, "the mind of God".

The combination is potent. How many can name his successor as Lucasian professor on his retirement in 2009? I'd be surprised if 1 per cent of those familiar with Hawking have heard of Michael Green.

For Helene Mialet, what we know is not Hawking but a construct she calls "HAWKING", which is sustained by an extended network of nurses, postgraduate assistants, students and other ancillaries, further institutional support, plus indispensable media assistance. In this rather thorough exploration, she gives us a thick description of how this all works, interwoven with much discussion of distributed identities and personhood in performance.

Some of this replicates the familiar machinery of celebrity, but there is a key difference. Hawking is invariably presented as the epitome of the lone genius, a perfect Cartesian who, imprisoned within his body, has broken free, doing fundamental science purely through mental power.

Mialet shows how this is the opposite of the truth. A man who cannot speak, write equations or draw diagrams needs constant support to develop any cosmological ideas, even mainly pictorial ones. He is more tightly enmeshed in the networks of people and objects that allow him to live and work than it is easy to imagine.

This truth is systematically effaced from the support network's public products, which are configured to cover their own traces. Although it recognises that he has nursing care, as far as the outside world is concerned Hawking-as-scientist functions alone.

In Mialet's account, the extremity of his condition and the remarkable work he has still been able to achieve serve to emphasise how science relies on collective effort, not individual brilliance. …

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