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Media Made Hawking Famous

Amid 70th birthday adoration, reporters ignored their role in the physicist’s celebrity
January 11, 2012

The extensive coverage of Stephen Hawking’s seventieth birthday on January 8 focused on the physicist’s status as the world’s most famous living scientist. But journalists largely avoided commenting on the major force that created his celebrity: the media themselves.

The build-up began in earnest last week when Hawking gave an exclusive interview to New Scientist in which he discussed the most exciting development in physics over the course of his career (finding evidence that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang), his biggest scientific blunder (thinking that information was destroyed in black holes), and his advice to young physicists (formulate an original idea that opens a new field).

But none of these comments was as newsworthy, seemingly, as the response he gave to a question about what he thinks about most during the day: “Women. They are a complete mystery.” This quote was chosen as the lead in stories about Hawking by, among others, CBS news, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Huffington Post.

This focus on Hawking-as-personality illuminates a recurring theme in his public life: that his fame—his reputation as “the brightest star in the scientific universe”—has as much, and perhaps more, to do with his media-created popular appeal as with his scientific achievements.

Fame is not a result of some innate characteristic. There must be portrayal through the media. And at the very least, famous figures are complicit in the construction of their celebrity. But while coverage of behind-the-scenes image-making is routine in political journalism, there was an almost complete lack of similarly-angled coverage about Hawking.

Yet the New Scientist interview was not the first time that Hawking seems to have tailored his comments to garner journalistic interest. Throughout his career, he and his publishers have demonstrated a keen understanding of the dynamics of publicity.

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The most-remembered part of his bestselling popular cosmology book, A Brief History of Time, was the last line, where he wrote that if scientists find a grand, unifying theory of physics, then “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” (He later wrote that he almost cut the last line, but that doing so might have halved his sales.)

The promotion of A Brief History was heavily Hawking-centered. His photograph appeared on the coverage of most editions and part of the blurb for the 1988 hardback American edition, for example, read: “From the vantage point of the wheelchair where he has spent the last twenty years trapped by Lou Gehrig’s disease, Professor Hawking has transformed our view of the universe.”

His last coauthored book, The Grand Design, gained enormous amounts of publicity with its argument that many universes were created out of nothing after the Big Bang, arising naturally from physical laws, without the need for a creator to account for the origin of the universe. More coverage followed last May when he told The Guardian that there was no heaven. He said: “That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Some coverage of Hawking’s seventieth birthday did comment on his understanding of journalism’s attraction to charismatic individuals. Laura Miller at Salon reviewed the new biography by Kitty Ferguson, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, writing that the physicist’s personal struggles cannot be separated from his fame. She added that his references to religion could indicate “Hawking knows how just to tweak the public’s interest in him as an oracular figure.”

In another piece dedicated to the reasons for Hawking’s cultural prominence, Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and sciences at the University of Bristol, UK, said his fame, like his science, was multi-dimensional.

For her, his research was field-changing. A Brief History of Time stirred imaginations and Hawking’s appearances in entertainment media—on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and Pink Floyd’s Division Bell album, for example—contributed to his mystique, but, above all, his humanity and courage in living with the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease captured the public imagination.

It is this image of Hawking that has overridden all others—the impression of him, in the words of one journalist, as “a butterfly mind trapped in a diving-bell body.”

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.

Declan Fahy , PhD, is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, D.C, where he teaches a course in health, science and environmental reporting. His research examines emerging methods, models and styles of science journalism.