Hawking in 1991. Photo: Rex/Tom Pilston/The Independent
Show Hide image

Stephen Hawking’s life is a triumph of intellect over adversity

Stephen Hawking received his "death sentence" more than 50 years ago. The Astronomer Royal pays tribute to him.

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. I learned that he had a degenerative disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – and might not live long enough even to finish his PhD degree. But, amazingly, he has lived on for 50 years longer. Mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he hasn’t merely survived. He has become the most famous scientist in the world – acclaimed for his brilliant researches, for his bestselling books about space, time and the cosmos and, above all, for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

The Theory of Everything, the film currently in cinemas, portrays the human story behind this struggle. And it surpasses most biopics in representing the main characters so well that they themselves are happy with the portrayal.

Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given back in 1963, when Stephen received his “death sentence”, against ever celebrating this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement, sustained now for more than 50 years.

Stephen went to school in St Albans and then to university at Oxford. He was, by all accounts, a “laid-back” undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first-class degree, and an “entry ticket” to a research career in Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound and his speech became an indistinct croak that only those who knew him could interpret. But in other respects fortune had favoured him. He married a college friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children.

His scientific work went from strength to strength: he quickly came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea) and how our universe began. In 1974 he was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32.

He was by then so frail that most of us suspected he could scale no further heights. But, for Stephen, this was still just the beginning. He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory – the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours; he couldn’t even turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he came up with his best ever idea, encapsulated in an equation that he says he wants on his gravestone.

The great advances in science generally involve discovering a link between phenomena that seemed hitherto conceptually unconnected: for instance, Isaac Newton realised that the force making an apple fall was the same as the force that held the moon and planets in their orbits. Stephen’s “eureka moment” revealed a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory which predicted that black holes would not be completely black, but would radiate in a characteristic way. This radiation is significant only for black holes much less massive than stars – and none of these has been found. However, “Hawking radiation” became a hugely influential concept in mathematical physics; indeed, one of the main achievements of string theory has been to firm up and build on his idea. It is remarkable that it is still the focus of theoretical interest, a topic of debate and controversy even 40 years after discovery. He has not been awarded the Nobel Prize because his idea is not confirmed by experiment. But in 2012 he was one of the first winners of the Milner Prize, worth $3m, intended to recognise theoretical work.

Cambridge has been Stephen’s base throughout his career and he became a familiar figure in the city, navigating his wheelchair around the streets. By the end of the 1970s he had advanced to one of the most distinguished posts at the university – the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, once held by Newton. Stephen held the chair with distinction for 30 years but reached the retiring age in 2009, and since then has held a special research professorship. He has continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe, addressing such questions as: “Was our Big Bang the only one?” He always had an amazing ability to figure things out in his head but generally he worked with colleagues who would write a formula on a blackboard; he would stare at it, and say what should come next.

In 1987 Stephen contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than ten years since he could write, or use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.

But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser with the androidal American accent that has since become his trademark. His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so a single sentence took several minutes. He has learned to economise with words. His comments are aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In recent years he has become too weak to control this machine effectively, even with facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication – to his immense frustration – has become still slower. Let’s hope that his new Intel predictive software speeds things up, though he will not modify his “trademark” voice.

At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book that he hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, Robert and Lucy, who were then of college age. On recovering from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the US edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers had made errors (one picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. It was the first inkling that the book was destined to have huge success – four years on bestseller lists around the world.

Stephen became an international celebrity. His later ideas appear, beautifully illustrated, in other books such as The Universe in a Nutshell and The Grand Design. These were not bought by quite as many people as his first book, but they are more clearly written, and probably more people got to the end of them. He has featured in numerous television programmes; his lectures have filled the Royal Albert Hall in London, and similar venues in the United States and Japan. (In principle, machine translation could now give him an advantage over the rest of us by converting his speech into Japanese, Korean, or other languages.) He lectured at Bill Clinton’s White House; he was back there again more recently when President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a very rare honour for any foreigner. He has featured in Star Trek and The Simpsons, as well as in numerous TV advertisements. Even before the present film, his life and work had featured in movies. In an excellent TV docudrama, he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. (And in 2012 Cumberbatch spoke his words in a three-part documentary, The Grand Design, made for the Discovery Channel.)

The Theory of Everything conveys with sensitivity how the pressure of his celebrity, and the need for round-the-clock care by a team of nurses, strained his marriage to breaking point. Jane’s book on which the film is based chronicles the 25 years during which, with amazing dedication, she underpinned his family life and his career.

This is where the film ends. But it leaves us only halfway through Stephen’s adult life. After the split with Jane, he married Elaine Mason, who had been one of his nurses, and whose former husband had designed his speech synthesiser. However, this partnership broke up after a few years. He has been sustained, then and thereafter, by a team of helpers and personal assistants, as well as his family. His daughter, Lucy, has written books for children with her father listed as co-author.

His 60th-birthday celebrations in January 2002 were a memorable occasion for all of us. Hundreds of leading scientists came from all over the world to honour and celebrate Stephen’s discoveries, and to spend a week discussing the latest theories on space, time and the cosmos. But the celebrations weren’t just scientific – that wouldn’t have been Stephen’s style. There were parties and dinners each evening. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. A Marilyn Monroe lookalike cut a huge birthday cake; a troupe of cancan dancers performed; there was music and singing. And when the week’s events were all over, he celebrated with a trip in a hot-air balloon.

Stephen continued, even in his sixties, to write technical papers and to speak at premier international conferences – doubly remarkable in a subject such as maths, where even most healthy researchers peak at an early age. He reminded us that he was not another Einstein; nonetheless few, if any, have done more to deepen our knowledge of gravity, space and time.

He remains an inveterate traveller despite attempts to curb this as his respiration weakens. All his trips involve an entourage of assistants and nurses. His fame, and the allure of his public appearances, have given him the resources for nursing care, even private jets, and protected him against the “Does he take sugar?” type of indignity that the disabled often suffer.

Why has he become such a “cult figure”? The notion of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in (say) genetics, rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably would not have had the same resonance with a worldwide public.

It was amazing enough that Stephen reached the age of 60; few of us then thought that he would survive to another milestone – his 70th birthday. But he did, and this was again marked by an international gathering of scientists, and also with some razzmatazz: Richard Branson, Daniel Craig and other celebrities attended. Yet plainly he was then weakening; he had to watch most of the events by video while in hospital on a respirator.

But once again he recovered, and was soon back at work. Within three months he was off on another transatlantic trip. This was not just to lecture: he was determined to visit an underground laboratory in Canada where landmark and delicate experiments had been done. He was undeterred by having to descend two miles down a mineshaft. On a later trip only a last-minute health setback prevented him from travelling onwards to the Galapagos. In April 2013, he gave lectures to huge audiences in California. And just four months ago he was the “star” attraction (along with Brian May) at Starmus, a “cosmos and music” festival in the Canary Islands.

Stephen is far from being the archetypal unworldly or nerdish scientist – his personality has remained remarkably unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. As well as his inveterate scientific travels, he enjoys trips to the theatre or the opera. He has robust common sense, and forceful political opinions that he is ready to express. However, a downside of his celebrity is that his comments attract exaggerated attention even when he speaks about topics in which he has no special expertise – philosophy, for instance, or the dangers posed by aliens or intelligent machines.

Despite the pressures and difficulties, he is a determined campaigner for the disabled. He has also always been, at a personal level, sensitive to the misfortunes of others. He records that, in hospital soon after his illness was first diagnosed, he felt his depression lift when he compared his lot with that of a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukaemia. In later life, he went to great efforts to visit a terminally ill colleague. And he has been happy to align himself with other campaigns and causes. When he visited Israel, he insisted on going also to the West Bank. Newspapers in 2006 showed remarkable pictures of him in his wheelchair, surrounded by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah. And in 2013 he accepted the advice of Palestinian colleagues to decline an invitation to a major conference in Israel. But by the time the ensuing (and entirely predictable) controversy broke, he was in intensive care with a collapsed lung. Last month he hit headlines again with his claims that computers may become so powerful that it will be the end for humanity.

Even more astonishing are the photographs of him “floating” in the Nasa aircraft (the “Vomit Comet”) that allows passengers to experience weightlessness. He was manifestly overjoyed at escaping, albeit briefly, the clutches of the gravitational force he has studied for decades and that has so cruelly imprisoned his body. He says he would still like to be a “space tourist”. In London in the summer of 2012, he reached perhaps his largest ever audience when he played a star role in the opening ceremony for the Paralympics. He is probably, at least since the death of the actor Christopher Reeve, the best-known disabled person in the world – and, unlike Reeve, he achieved his fame while already disabled.

Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 21. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease and his expectations dropped to zero. He has said that everything that has happened since then is a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his bestselling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds – a manifestation of astonishing willpower and determination.

It is a great thing that some phases and facets of Stephen’s life have been so well portrayed in The Theory of Everything. Let’s hope that some time there will be another film that depicts his later life, and his scientific achievements.

This article is an updated and expanded version of a tribute to Stephen Hawking published in 2007

Martin Rees is a fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge