Why Hawking’s popularity comes down to accessible science

In the modern field of theoretical physics, there is certainly no shortage of brilliant minds who have worked tirelessly to solve the mysteries of our universe. Consider Kip Thorne, a leading expert in the field of astrophysics and the person who helped prove one of Einstein’s most famous theories.

Back in 1916, Albert Einstein ushered humankind into a new era of modern physics when he established his theory of general relativity, a proposal that unified our understanding of space, time, gravity, energy and mass. This landmark axiom revolutionized the study of physics, because it defined gravity as a geometric property of space and time, or spacetime (which combines the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time). Essentially, this theory states that the mere existence of mass distorts space and time much like how a bowling ball distorts the shape of a trampoline when placed in the middle. According to Einstein, this curvature of spacetime is what creates gravity. The theory of general relativity dictates that matter governs how spacetime curves, which in turn decides how matter moves in that spacetime.

In addition, this definition of gravity pushed forward the concept of gravitational waves, which are ripples in spacetime that occur when an object accelerates. They’re similar to the ripples that form when you drop a pebble (an accelerating object) in a pond (spacetime). Now, how is this related to Thorne? Simply put, he and his colleagues managed to prove the existence of gravitational waves.

While Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, no one could directly prove it, because they are extremely weak and difficult to detect. After several decades of failed attempts, many physicists began to have doubts. Thorne, however, was not one of these skeptics. Throughout the 1970s, he formulated several airtight mathematical models, which convinced countless scientists that gravitational waves did exist. Then, in 1984, Thorne worked together with physicists Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Ronald Drever to establish the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) Project, engineering new designs and developing the necessary mathematics to increase their odds of success. Costing over $300 million, with yearly operational costs of $30 million, this ambitious endeavor became the largest and most expensive project funded by the National Science Foundation.

However, the past three decades of hard work and nervous trepidation had finally paid off. In 2015, the LIGO recorded the chirp of a gravitational wave caused by two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light years away. This observation not only confirmed Einstein’s prediction but also marked the first time scientists have directly observed black holes merging. A year later, Thorne, Weiss, Barish and Drever were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics for directly proving the existence of gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein first predicted them. Yet despite this monumental achievement in science, a serious question lingers in my mind: Does the general public still remember these brilliant scientists or even remember their names?

Consider the recent passing of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who died peacefully at the age of 76 on March 14, 2018. When news of Hawking’s death came out, it wasn’t just the science community that expressed their sorrows—the entire world mourned.

Almost immediately, public superstars from around the world offered tributes to the famed physicist. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, solemnly noted, “We have lost a colossal mind and a wonderful spirit.” Former President Barack Obama, who presented Hawking with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, tweeted a photo of them together with the words “Have fun out there among the stars.” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak stated, “Stephen Hawking’s integrity and scientific dedication placed him above pure brilliance.” Not only that, countless celebrities such as Sam Smith, Cher, Katy Perry and the cast of the popular TV show “The Big Bang Theory” all expressed their grief at his passing.

“‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet’ – RIP Stephen Hawking you fucking legend,” tweeted the U.S. rock band Foo Fighters.

It is clear that Stephen Hawking wasn’t just another theoretical physicist. Despite researching one of the most complicated and arcane areas of science, Hawking was one of the most well-known and recognizable contemporary scientists in the world and had become a household name for almost everyone, even those who were far removed from the typical academic circle. What exactly made Stephen Hawking so special in the eyes of the general public? In response, many news publications would not hesitate to point to his impressive list of accomplishments. Indeed, the 76-year-old British scientist achieved incredible feats in his professional career.

Back in 1966, Hawking collaborated with esteemed mathematician Roger Penrose to investigate the nature of singularities, which are points in spacetime that have infinite mass and density, making gravity infinite and thus causing spacetime to appear infinitely curved. In 1970, Hawking and Penrose published a paper proving that these singularities exist and form black holes due to their immense gravity, being the first to theorize that the universe started with a singularity known as the Big Bang.

Throughout his life, Hawking continued his research on black holes, making several crucial discoveries along the way. In 1970, he established the second law of black hole thermodynamics, which stated that the size of the black hole’s event horizon, which is the boundary beyond which nothing can escape, only increases in size over time. Two years later, Princeton graduate student Jacob Bekenstein proposed a controversial claim: The accepted understanding of black holes violated the second law of thermodynamics because it assumed that entropy just disappears once it crosses the event horizon; however, we can preserve the second law if the area of the event horizon itself is a measure of its entropy. Hawking immediately disliked this idea; it completely contrasted with the accepted notion that black holes can’t radiate heat—their gravitational pull is too great for anything to escape after all. So he conducted further research to prove Bekenstein wrong. Instead, in 1974, he uncovered the precise mathematical relationship between entropy and the black hole’s event horizon. Ironically enough, it turned out to be his greatest scientific breakthrough. By combining the theories related to gravity, quantum mechanics, relativity and thermodynamics, Hawking proved that black holes actually emit heat and eventually evaporate, which immediately established him as a powerhouse in his field.

Given all this, there is no doubt that Hawking deserves his recognition as a genius. However, if making groundbreaking discoveries is all it takes for a physicist to obtain worldwide acclaim, then how come brilliant minds like Thorne still struggle for mainstream relevance? Thorne isn’t the only one—countless scientists with resumes as impressive as Hawking’s still remain largely unknown to the general public. What about Bekenstein, who was the first one to suggest that black holes have entropy?

In all honesty, it’s fruitless to compare Hawking’s accomplishments to those of other theoretical physicists, because most people probably don’t even know anything about Hawking’s scientific achievements in the first place. His name has become so universally synonymous with scientific brilliance that many people just see him as one of the smartest scientists of the modern world without actually knowing the details of his research. But if Hawking’s celebrity status is not directly tied to his work, then what exactly made him different in the eyes of the public compared to other genius physicists who have accomplished distinguished feats in science? The answer is simple: It’s his bestselling book, “A Brief History of Time.”

For scientists, writing about their research is nothing unusual. In order to advance their careers and establish their names in the field, nearly all scientists are required to continually submit research papers to academic journals. The major caveat, however, is that scientific literature has always been largely isolated from the general public due to its impenetrable writing style. Academic papers are mainly written by scientists for scientists and no one else. As a result, scientific papers are often too dense and confusing for casual observers to understand, much less enjoy. This type of language did not translate well in selling copies of science nonfiction books. In fact, for a long time, science books were considered to be dead ends for publishers. It was the veritable golden rule in the publishing industry: Science books don’t sell. However, that all changed when Hawking published his first book, “A Brief History of Time,” in 1988.

Calling “A Brief History of Time” a successful book is most certainly an understatement. Hawking’s literary magnum opus was more than successful—it was absolutely unprecedented in sales. During its first run, the book sold out in the United States in just a couple of days and ended up spending 147 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and a record-breaking 237 weeks on the Times of London bestseller list. To date, “A Brief History of Time” has sold over 10 million copies, becoming perhaps the most iconic popular science book in the world. Against all odds, Hawking turned a book about an unfathomably dense and complex subject as astrophysics into a global success among casual readers. Yet, he doesn’t deserve all the credit; a principal reason why this book sold so well was due to his publishers at Bantam Books

As mentioned previously, the majority of scientists back in the 20th century remained within their tight-knit academic circle, and their books generally reflected a similar intellectually exclusive mindset. Rather than aiming to inspire the general public, many scientists strived to write in a scholarly manner, depicting their research as accurately and professionally as possible in much the same vein as their academic papers. Hawking was a rare exception to this trend. His primary motivation to write this book was not academic recognition but rather the desire to share his excitement about the universe. In fact, he wanted so badly for the general public to know about the latest discoveries in cosmology that his goal was to have his book be successful enough to be sold in airports.

However, even Hawking wasn’t immune to the dry, technical writing style of science literature at the time. Despite his best attempts, his first manuscript consisted of 100 pages of extremely dense material that was much too complex for the average reader to understand. Even for brilliant theoretical physicists who write academic papers on a regular basis, writing about science with a general audience in mind is incredibly challenging. Not only that, but with the golden rule in place, Hawking had trouble finding publishers willing to work with him: four different publishing houses rejected Hawking’s manuscript. That’s when the editors at Bantam Books stepped in and accepted his manuscript. Fully aware that science books were unpopular with readers due to their impenetrable content, they repeatedly told Hawking to rewrite his manuscript so that the science was simple to comprehend, yet still scientifically accurate. Peter Guzzardi, a senior editor of Bantam Books and the person who came up with the book’s famous title, made sure that the final product was perfectly clear to a non-scientist like himself. “My primary contribution to the book was to doggedly keep asking Stephen questions, not giving up until I understood what he intended to convey,” stated Guzzardi.

Hawking’s book ended up spending about six years in development, going through so many rewrites that Hawking stated in an interview, “At times I thought the process would never end.” In addition, the editors forced Hawking to cut out all but one mathematical equation from his book, cautioning that every additional formula would slash sales in half. Despite this harrowing process and the poor state of his health, Hawking managed to persevere in the end due to his fierce determination to get the general public excited about science. And to everyone’s dumbfounded surprise, the book became an instant hit, and Hawking turned into a celebrity icon almost overnight. “I think the only person who hasn’t been surprised by the book’s success is Hawking himself,” commented his literary agent Al Zuckerman.

Over the years, various literary critics have offered countless possible reasons why “A Brief History of Time” become an instant classic while other science books failed to even stay on shelves for more than a couple of weeks. However, one reader from Goodreads states it best: “Isn’t it amazing that a person can read a book like ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking and come away feeling both smarter and dumber than before he started? [It was] written with accessibility in mind, knowing full well idiots like me wouldn’t buy it, read it or recommend it if it were impossibly dense.”

By conveying science in a clear, succinct and straightforward manner, Hawking managed to take full advantage of the vast, untapped reservoir of scientific curiosity within members of the general public who had previously felt left behind by the confusing words of the scientific community. It was Hawking who opened the door to modern popular science literature, showing both scientists and publishers that many readers actually do enjoy reading about science as long as it is written so that they could comprehend it without difficulty. What made “A Brief History of Time” so popular was not that it had the most intricate scientific proofs or the fanciest mathematical equations, but that it was written in a way in which anyone could understand it no matter how complicated the topic may be. Providing a real sense of pride and accomplishment upon finishing, the reader is left with not only a greater understanding of the universe but also a deeper respect for Hawking as a scientist simply because he was able to explain everything so clearly to them. Thus, readers who finished the book obtained a noteworthy sense of accomplishment for having tackled such a challenging topic.

Ultimately, Hawking’s landmark achievement in popular science writing and subsequent rise to global recognition illustrate the sheer importance of clear writing within the STEM fields. As much as we may venerate the sciences, they mean shockingly little if their importance is not properly communicated to the general public. Only by clearly conveying the relevance of their pursuits can the scientific community effectively persuade non-scientists to fund their research and implement their practices in society. The small pockets of distrust towards scientists in society would certainly shrink if more people understood the discoveries being made every day. Out of the countless accomplishments Hawking achieved in his life, the publication of his iconic book is perhaps the greatest lesson that he has imparted to scientists around the world.

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