Stephen Hawking Gets PR Help From God

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By invoking the deity, the eminent scientist has discovered the formula for creating a popular success from abstruse science

Hold onto your mitres, folks: Stephen Hawking is back in the news, with the revelation that science has proved the universe can do without God (or something like that). This theologico-physical bombshell has landed him on the Times's front page (I'd link to it, but, you know ...), a slot on both the News at 10 and Channel 4 and "“ according to the Daily Mail "“ has already provoked a retaliatory jihad from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Could it be that he's got a book out?

Ah yes. That'll be The Grand Design, a "controversial new theory on the origins of the universe, from the world's most famous living scientist", out next week. The publicity department at Bantam must be breaking out the champagne, and with a surge in pre-orders on Amazon since the media storm broke, their colleagues in sales won't be far behind. But what is it about the Lucasian professor of mathematics that makes him such a publishing phenomenon?

It's not just his undoubted brilliance, his rolling prose style, or his compelling back story "“ though the contrast between his wheelchair-bound physical existence and an intellectual life which ranges across the universe lends something of an emotional charge to pronouncements about far-flung corners of the cosmos. No, in Hawking's case, it's the G-word.

Cast you mind back to Hawking's bestselling A Brief History of Time - his Old Testament, if you will. This whistlestop tour of relativity, Big Bang theory and black holes went on to sell more than 9m copies "“ though how many of those copies made the transition from being bought to being read is another question. With only one equation, lots of excellent diagrams and the pleasingly brain-scrambling concept of "imaginary time", it was undoubtedly well put together. But the reason why Hawking ended up in a totally different galaxy, sales-wise, from colleagues such as Frank Close or Paul Davies who published similar books at around the same time, was his willingness to talk about God. He famously closed the book with the ringing declaration that "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of reason "“ for then we should know the mind of God."

Now he's at it again, suggesting that "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing ... It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." I don't want to quibble with Professor Hawking's interpretation of M-theory, but if he's right then it can hardly be described as a theory of everything. You may not need God to create a universe, but a little religion goes a long way in creating a bestseller.

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3 September 2010 2:28PM

For trainspotters the problem here with Professor Hawkings thesis is that it runs on a different gauge from the metaphysicians and religious people.

For those of a philosophical bent. It is the problem of completion. You simply cannot ask questions beyond the presuppositions of the system - you hit your head upon the limits of science - and need to then to use tools belonging to the ontologists.

3 September 2010 2:30PM

Does it really matter if you use the step-ladder marked "Cynicism" or the one marked "News" as you clamber onto the crowded PR bandwagon?

3 September 2010 3:05PM

I don't really see why this is much of a story, famous scientist says there isn't enough evidence to believe in god. Well so what? That is probably the same of many people. It may be an interesting book, but if you are going to make a story out of his book then report the book not the authors opinion on god.

3 September 2010 3:23PM

Either the rules for running a universe are inherent in the universe or some supreme pre-existing designer made them up.

It's not difficult to recognise which is the simpler explanation.

3 September 2010 3:25PM

Er, Philman, I think you'll probably find that the story about the book is the author's (always nice to use that with a possessive apostrophe, by the way) opinion of god. It's certainly what got the Archbishop and that barking rightwing chief rabbi with the creepy maniacal stare into such a tizzy.

Go get 'em Stephen! Anyone who gets those idiots frothing is always welcome round our house. And, yes, Richard, it quantum tunnelled its way from purchase to a full, if slow, reading over at ours...

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