The memoirs of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking: Evolution in the head

Two of the most visible of today’s scientists are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Their autobiographies present an opportunity to find out how they became so visible in the first place.

An Appetite for Wonder – the Making of a Scientist: a Memoir
Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press, 320pp, £20

My Brief History: a Memoir
Stephen Hawking
Bantam Press, 144pp, £12.99

In 1977, visiting the University of Connecticut, I came across Rae Goodell’s book The Visible Scientists. It asked why a very small number of scientists, more often than not, dominated the media. In those days, they were people such as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan and it was unusual for any scientist to have a strong media presence. Now, a media profile is common enough not to raise many eyebrows but the same question applies. And the answer is much the same: the media prefer people with a proven track record, so they generate “gurus”.

Two of the most visible of today’s scientists are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Both have now published autobiographies, presenting an opportunity to find out how they became so visible in the first place.

Clinton Richard Dawkins had a privileged upbringing in a family with a strong tradition in the colonial service. Born in Kenya, he attended a series of public schools: a boarding school in Southern Rhodesia (“now the sick dictatorship of Zimbabwe”); St Anne’s School in Chelmsford, where he was bullied by some big girls; then another boarding school, Chafyn Grove in Salisbury. It was perhaps here that the seeds of his atheism were sown: the then headmaster, Mr Galloway, “truly believed all that stuff, unlike many educators who pretend to do so out of duty, and politicians who pretend to do so because they are under the . . . impression that it wins votes”.

Dawkins credits his mother with telling him, when he was nine, that Christianity wasn’t the only religion and that they all contradicted each other. I’ve often felt that American creationists are backing the wrong horse when they try to get religion into state schools – in my experience, the best way to turn children off religion is to teach it to them in school. Be that as it may, when the 17-year-old Dawkins was in his final year at Oundle, another public school, he became militantly anti-religious, having arrived there as a confirmed Anglican.

From Oundle, he went to Oxford, eventually completing a DPhil under Niko Tinbergen, who specialised in animal behaviour. We gain some deep insights into Dawkins’s early scientific research, especially the extensive role of mathematics. The book ends just when everything is starting to get interesting, with the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976.

The book’s central message was that genes, not organisms, are what drive evolution. From today’s perspective, this view looks a little simplistic: genes and organisms together create a feedback cycle, in which genes survive because they either contribute to the organism’s survival or, at least, do not weaken its prospects. The important point is that it is complicity between genes and organisms, in the context of the environment that best describes the evolutionary process.

Stephen Hawking’s background was less privileged than that of Dawkins but there are parallels. His great-grandfather and his grandfather went bankrupt in the agricultural depression of the 1930s. His grandmother ran a school in her house, which became the family’s main source of income – enough to send Stephen’s father to Oxford. He did research there in tropical medicine and travelled to eastern Africa in 1937.

Hawking was born in Oxford on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo. He complained to his parents that his first school “wasn’t teaching me anything”; as proof, he didn’t learn to read until he was eight. When his parents rented a house in Majorca, Hawking had a tutor. Intending to open his tutee’s mind to the beauty of the English language, he told him to read a chapter of the Bible every day and write a commentary. This ploy backfired when Hawking complained that many sentences started with “and”, contrary to what he was being taught about good English. The tutor replied that the language of the Bible was outdated. In that case, Hawking asked, why was he being made to read it?

At school in St Albans, he decided to focus on physics and astronomy, despite finding physics boring because it was too easy. His undergraduate years were spent at Oxford and his postgraduate years at Cambridge, working on cosmology and gravitation. He managed to upset Fred Hoyle by pointing out in public that Hoyle’s favoured steady state theory of the universe implied that all masses should be infinite. However, Hoyle later gave him a job.

During his final year at Oxford, the symptoms of his disease began to appear: he fell down the stairs. His doctor put it down to too much beer but it soon became apparent that Hawking had an incurable and probably fatal illness. Perhaps out of a misguided wish not to upset him, nobody told him that it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neurone disease, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). There was one bright spot in his life: he became engaged to Jane Wilde and “started working for the first time in my life”. They married in 1965.

By the early 1970s, his research on black holes had solved many of the big problems in the area and he was “at a bit of a loose end”. Trying to combine relativity and quantum theory, he discovered that a black hole should emit radiation, now called Hawking radiation. In 1975, he was awarded the Pius XI Medal. He considered refusing it because of the Vatican’s treatment of Galileo but relented because the Church had subsequently admitted this had been a mistake.

His condition was getting steadily worse and Jane became depressed, convinced that he would soon die. A bout of pneumonia led to a tracheotomy, after which he could not speak at all. He was rescued by Walt Woltosz, who sent him a computer program that allowed him to select words on a screen by pressing a switch, and by David Mason, who provided a speech synthesiser. Around this time, the marriage broke up and Hawking moved out, along with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he later married.

In 1982, Hawking had the idea of writing a popular science book about the universe. This eventually appeared as A Brief History of Time (1988), which sold more than ten million copies. Reviewers assumed that the main factor behind the book’s popularity was its author’s human-interest story and thought that often the book was displayed on coffee tables rather than being read (it is distinctly challenging). However, Hawking points out that he regularly received “a pile of letters about that book”.

Notoriously, it ends with this sentence: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.” Prominent scientists often invoke the Deity as a metaphor for the ordered workings of the universe and are taken literally by theists; this was such a case.

In reality, Hawking is an atheist and has often pointed out that we can understand the universe without requiring a creator. He tells us that he nearly deleted this sentence but: “Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.”

Both these books are fascinating but they left me wanting more – Hawking’s because his history is a bit too brief; Dawkins’s because he takes his story only up to The Selfish Gene. Hawking tells us at one point that he can write about three words a minute, so the wonder is that he has produced an autobiography at all. A further volume from Dawkins is promised. I suspect it will tell us a lot more about what drives him.

Ian Stewart’s books include “Seventeen Equations That Changed the World” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Richard Dawkins speaks during the National Atheist Organization's 'Reason Rally'. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times