A brief history of wonder

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 June, 2006, 12:00am

The picture of Stephen Hawking, immobilised in a wheelchair with his head tilted to one side, has become an iconic image of our time. There has been a lively debate in my office and on the South China Morning Post's editorial page about whether the local media is focusing too much attention on Professor Hawking's disability rather than his phenomenal scientific achievements.

Certainly it does seem a bit overdone for TV and newspapers to file reports about local paraplegics as side stories to his visit. But it is difficult to ignore someone in his physical condition, so let's not mince words in a desperate attempt at political correctness.

The professor seems to enjoy being in the spotlight: otherwise, he would not be travelling the world on physically demanding trips. He must know that his physical condition will always be an issue in the public eye.

But the image of a wheelchair-bound genius, tragic in its way, is not really about a decaying body. It signifies something else: a metaphor for pure thought, unaffected by the body or emotions. There are few professions that do not require some degree of bodily engagement. Mathematics and theoretical physics are the ones that come to mind.

Despite its universality, the full depth of mathematics is accessible to very few people. This is what we see in the Hawking picture - one of the privileged few who hold, in their mind, the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. His wasting body brings this point home in even sharper relief.

It has been said that Professor Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most unread bestsellers in the history of publishing. But many people I know who otherwise have no great interest in science have read substantial portions of it. Many readers from different countries have approached or e-mailed Professor Hawking to ask detailed questions about his book, indicating they must have given it more than a cursory reading, he says.

Although Professor Hawking and his publishers said they never expected the book to be a runaway hit, in retrospect, its success isn't at all surprising. Why shouldn't people - unlike jaded book critics - be fascinated by it? It presents images of unimaginably compressed space and reversible time; speculates about what it was like the split second before creation; and reflects on whether the whole thing will ever end.

The book raises the most elementary metaphysical questions about the beginning and end of time: whether space is infinite or finite; and what are the smallest building blocks of matter? It mulls the so-called anthropic principle - the idea that we study the universe and its physical laws because these laws require an intelligence to study them.

Many scientists have criticised Professor Hawking for talking about philosophy rather than science. Philosophers have dismissed his statement about reading 'the mind of God' as confusing science with religion, or worse. It is probably true that his claims for cosmology - as being able to answer the most fundamental questions about existence and origin - go way beyond what the science actually warrants. It may well be that his exaggerated statements are a literary ploy to draw readers' interest to obscure subjects: who knows?

Many people today find it difficult to 'believe' - in the sense of subscribing to any of the great religious faiths. Yet they still feel a sense of awe before nature or creation. Professor Hawking's account of cosmology probably helps many people recall the sense of wonder they had as children.

'The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,' wrote the French mathematician Pascal in one of his most famous pensees. But he also said: 'By space, the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought, I comprehend the world.' Who would better understand these words than the incapacitated Professor Hawking?

Alex Lo is a columnist and senior reporter at the Post