But for journalists examining Hawking’s wider profile, the crucial point to note is that these characteristics—his cosmological research, his popularization work, his physical condition—have all been combined and packaged in his media portrayal. His public image could not have occurred without the media. With his participation, they shaped and molded it.
This has led to tensions within his field. Other physicists have been, at times, ambivalent about his reputation, because of what some of them see as his having a public profile that is out of proportion to his scientific merit.
In 1999, Physics World surveyed approximately 130 physicists and asked them to name the five researchers who made the most important contributions to the field. Albert Einstein came first with 119 votes. Richard Feynman came seventh with 23 votes. Paul Dirac came eighth with 22 votes. Hawking received one vote.
In 1993, Jeremy Dunning-Davies, a physicist at the UK’s University of Hull, noted in the journal Public Understanding of Science that sections of the media have perpetuated the image of Hawking as a kind of “super-physicist,” portraying him as being more important than Nobel prize-winners such as Paul Dirac.
This popular status is potentially problematic because it could affect the decision-making process of science itself, as Dunning-Davies said colleagues of his had papers rejected for publication “simply because the end result disagrees with Hawking.”
Such thorough, nuanced discussion has not figured prominently in the coverage of Hawking’s birthday. Instead, the reporting of a special symposium on Hawking’s life and work held at the University of Cambridge, UK, featured comments from one of the invited guests, entrepreneur Richard Branson, who said that Hawking should “have won the Nobel Prize many times” and “is somebody who has discovered many things in his lifetime.” (As a counterbalance, a piece by Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample outlined Hawking’s contributions to science, notably his black hole research.)
Hawking is a remarkable and inspiring man, and no scientific lightweight: he has made real contributions to his field and held for decades the eminent Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. More stories are bound to follow about him, but coverage that aims for a full and proportionate examination of his life should take into account how the media helped create, and perpetuate, the Hawking persona. Journalists, especially science journalists, should avoid hagiography when appraising famous scientists.