Lessons from Stephen Hawking’s first popular book: We were in the Hudson Valley last weekend, visiting a sick older friend.
We saw a nurse, whose name isn’t famous, who knows how to capture the focus of Parkinson’s sufferers by playing their favorite music. (We saw it happen before she explained that she’d done it.)
In a local newspaper, The Northern Duchess News, we read five pages of remembrances of local favorite son Pete Seeger. For us, this passage stood out:
FASHONA (2/11/14): Seeger was an enigma in some ways. Although he was a staunch opponent of war—any war—he was also a dedicated member of Fishkill VFW Post 1286. He was able to separate the act of war from the men who felt it was their duty to fight for their country...On our own, we spent some time rereading Stephen Hawking. We got the idea after reading that Science Times report about the sum of all the natural numbers.
“In the four years I was commander, he never missed a meeting, until his health started to go downhill,” said the VFW’s Ron Leenig. He said Seeger was always helping with fundraising and any other jobs that needed to be done around the VFW post.
“He was a very dedicated member,” Leenig said.
As you may recall, Dennis Overbye (no relation) reported that the sum of all the natural numbers somehow turns out to be minus 1/12.
Overbye was puzzled too! The following passage inspired us to reread our Hawking:
OVERBYE (2/4/14): In modern terms, Dr. Frenkel explained, the gist of the calculations can be interpreted as saying that the infinite sum has three separate parts: one of which blows up when you go to infinity, one of which goes to zero, and minus 1/12. The infinite term, he said, just gets thrown away.Say what? We were struck to see that passage in a newspaper piece for non-specialists. As we reviewed the passage, these problems came to mind:
We don’t know what it means to say that “the infinite sum has three separate parts.”
We have no idea what it means to say that one of the parts “blows up when you go to infinity.” We don’t know what it means to say that “one part goes to zero.”
“The infinite term just gets thrown away?” We don’t know what that means either! And who said you can just throw it away, whatever it is in the first place?
That passage made us think of Hawking. We had just watched the new PBS documentary about his life. We recalled our struggles with his first popular science book back in the 80s and 90s.
The book to which we refer was A Brief History of Time (1988). In our judgment at the time, the book had either been too brief, or perhaps not brief enough.
We have fond memories of playing the book-on-tape when we drove from Baltimore to Lexington, Kentucky on four successive Sundays in the summer of 1997. (On one of those Sundays, we drove from Montreal. For our destination, click here.)
At the time, we were puzzling over a basic question:
Hawking’s book was supposed to be written for non-specialists. How far could a non-specialist plausibly hope to get in the book before he would have to admit that he was hopelessly lost?
That passage in Science Times interacted with the PBS special to produce The Northern Duchess Challenge! While away on our mid-winter long weekend, we would return to Hawking’s mega best-seller. We’d see how far we could get in the famous book today.
In truth, we didn’t get far. In our defense, we didn’t throw the infinite term away either—at least, not as far as we know.
Did anyone ever understand Hawking’s book? Here's why we ask:
We’ve long been fascinated by the way we humans deal with statements and presentations we don’t and can’t truly comprehend. No one who read the Science Times article understood the paragraph we have posted. In a similar vein, how far were we able to get in Hawking’s famous book?
We’ll report on our journey tomorrow. Our thesis:
People who accept incomprehensible work from famous authority figures constitute the perfect customers for the slippery, incoherent presentations of modern-day “cable news.”
We assume that Hawking was fully sincere. Big cable stars may not be.