Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Stephen Hawking in the oddest places

Hawking in Legos
When Stephen Hawking wrote the modern science classic A Brief History of Time, he transformed from an ordinary theoretical physicist into an all-purpose pop culture icon. He pops up in the oddest places, from the YouTube video that autotuned his voice and Carl Sagan's, to geek rapper MC Hawking, to…the debate about healthcare? I hadn't heard about that last appearance until I read the editorial in this month's Scientific American, written by another theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss (the "Physics of Star Trek" guy). Krauss opens his editorial with a mention of Hawking:

When I saw the statement repeated online that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge would be dead by now if he lived in the U.K. and had to depend on the National Health Service (he, of course, is alive and working in the U.K., where he always has), I reflected on something I had written a dozen years ago, in one of my first published commentaries:

"The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain."



The Royal Society recently unveiled this painting of Hawking by Tai-Shan Schierenberg.
I didn't hear about this when it happened, but apparently an editorial condemning President Obama's plans for universal healthcare used Professor Hawking as an argument for privatized healthcare. The editorial, published in Investor's Business Daily, was later changed—you'll see why—but not before other websites reprinted the quote for all posterity:

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
If you're scratching your head and thinking, "Wait. . ." don't worry, Stephen Hawking didn't transmogrify himself into an American while you weren't looking or something.

The editors later printed this correction:
Editor's Note: This version corrects the original editorial which implied that physicist Stephen Hawking, a professor at the University of Cambridge, did not live in the UK.

While a political commentator at the Washington Post had a good laugh at the hapless editorial's expense, the best response came from the Guardian's politics Diary.
We say his life is far from worthless, as they do at Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge, where Professor Hawking, who has motor neurone disease, was treated for chest problems in April. As indeed does he. "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he told us. "I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived." Something here is worthless. And it's not him.

1 comment:

  1. NHS or not, Professor Hawking is a survivor and an inspiration both intellectually and as a person. This is why as an artist, I wanted to do his portrait. The painting you are showing here is from Tai-Shan Schierenberg who did an impressive job. But since I couldn't imagine a fair portrait of Hawking without his life-time obsession: science, I therefore tried to include in my portrait such concepts as Einstein's General relativity while struggling with Quantum mechanics.

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