Stephen Hawking's mental power

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Hi,

Does anyone have interest in physicist Stephen Hawking? He suffers serious physical illness, but was still able to work and published many papers during the decades.

How does he calculate? I don't think he could write smoothly, do does he dictate to an assistant and ask the assistant to calculate for him? But I heard that he uses a speech synthesizer so that means he is perhaps not even able to speak effortlessly like a normal person?

Then how does he do all the formidable calculation in his field? I guess he might be able to do all that mentally?


Bob
 
I think Stephen Hawking is not a genius. His illness has made him popular.
if he didnt have the illness, he would be an ordinary unknown physicist.
 
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You mean he is morally an iconic hero, but in fact not that great?

To some extent, I tend to believe most people hold purely respectful view toward him partly due to his illness. If he does not have such illness and instead has a strong physique in addition to some kind of first-class intellectual power, somewhat like Julius Caesar, then by human nature many would be jealous toward him, at least making him a much more controversial figure then what now it is.

But I am also interested in how he does those calculation, if mentally. I don't think all mathematician/physicists can do that and it should be quite rare.


Bob
 
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I'm pretty sure that part of his fame should be attributed to the fact that he's ill, but why shouldn't it be? It's amazing what he does. I think that if he were ''normal'', he would still be a very above average physicist. I think that what it takes for a scientist to be known to the general public is something different than being a good scientist (no one knows who Dirac or Wigner are). In Hawking's case it probably has to do with his illness and the fact that he's a popularizer of science.

Anyway, I've wondered about what you asked, and I think he must avoid doing a lot of calculations, which is not a bad thing at all. When I was in high-school I could only do math on paper, but then I forced myself to just think about stuff and I was amazed at how I could actually do complex math just in my head. Doing this forces you to think only about the essentials only and really develops your ability to see things clearer. The great thing about math is that it actually gives you the capacity of abstraction. If too many calculations are involved, a computer should do it (that's my point of view).

Why is this in this forum?
 
Euler continued to be productive even after going blind. Imagine doing all your math in your head...
 
S

SamirS

Well, Hawking may have gone a little bit astray for the past years (see the black hole war he fought with Susskind), but he is an exceptional physicist nontheless. Of course his illness is somewhat part of his fame, and he probably isn't the "best" physicist in the world (whatever that means!) but he had some great insights (Hawking radiation anyone?). He definately is a world class scientist, this isn't even a question.

Also, showing millions of non-science people the beauty of relativity and QM is quite a feat itself.

You don't pick on Einstein either just because his last years in search of a GUT weren't as productive as early ones.
 
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I'm pretty sure that part of his fame should be attributed to the fact that he's ill, but why shouldn't it be? It's amazing what he does. I think that if he were ''normal'', he would still be a very above average physicist. I think that what it takes for a scientist to be known to the general public is something different than being a good scientist (no one knows who Dirac or Wigner are). In Hawking's case it probably has to do with his illness and the fact that he's a popularizer of science.

Anyway, I've wondered about what you asked, and I think he must avoid doing a lot of calculations, which is not a bad thing at all. When I was in high-school I could only do math on paper, but then I forced myself to just think about stuff and I was amazed at how I could actually do complex math just in my head. Doing this forces you to think only about the essentials only and really develops your ability to see things clearer. The great thing about math is that it actually gives you the capacity of abstraction. If too many calculations are involved, a computer should do it (that's my point of view).

Why is this in this forum?
In my view he is definitely a first-class scientist. Without his illness, I believe he should have had greater achievement.

In terms of his calculation, I actually believe that:
1. For mathematical proofs & derivation, however complicated the formula is, there exist ways to simplify them. So in principle it is possible to do all these mentally. Example {Euler, Von Neumann, Hawking, Donald Knuth}
2. For numerical computation, I strongly disbelieve that all can be done in mind. With an intense degree of concentration, one might be able to calculate the determinant of a 4x4 matrix or more, depending on the elements (magnitude, fractional digits, etc.), but this in fact requires lots of time and is error-prone. The important work done by Kepler and ancient astronomers in observing and recording movement of celestial bodies, as well as descovering qualitative or quantitative principle from them, can in no way be accomplished by purely mental meditation. This argument also applies to all other experimental physics which has always been a great and indispensable impetus for science.

Therefore, for those mathematicians/physicists that are capable of doing lots of or all non-numerical calculation in their mind, I guess the way they work should be

1. Relying on this ability in abstract thinking, in modeling phenomenon, in finding contradiction, and in deriving principles.
2. Use tools available to them to do the real data processing and experimental work. Especially, in fields involving lots of data collection, such as statistics.


For the case of Hawking, I think his illness in effect might have limited his ability in exploring things. He could not use tools like Mathematica, Matlab, SPSS and so on, not to mention inventing devices such as the Newton Ring, so the consequence is that the majority of his work should be based on
  1. idealization {continuum, limiting process, etc.}
  2. differential geometry
  3. linear approximation of non-linear phenomena

But all these abstract thinking is really only one aspect, however important, of the entire arsenal of scientific methods. I also believe that he himself should be aware of this limitation, and should have made lots of efforts from reading other people's experimental reports to compensate for this particular inability (he went to the space station, etc.). It was very unfornutate for him to lose much of the physical freedom that normal people posesses.

So there perhaps isn't too much mystery here. Hawking's mind is brilliant, but he also knows the trick on how to reduce the complexity of calculation. Nevertheless, his illness still imposes a very serious obstacle for him in making use methodologies that are available to his colleagues. It is perhaps, however, also due to this that he has made much greater effort than other scientists to enhance his ability in abstract thinking as a compensation, which might also have attributed to his achievements.


I was curious, and have thought on this topic for some time. Welcome responses.


Bob
 
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Femme_physics

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I think Stephen Hawking is not a genius. His illness has made him popular.
if he didnt have the illness, he would be an ordinary unknown physicist.
So nobody would read his books without the wheelchair thing?
 

Evo

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f95toli

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I think Stephen Hawking is not a genius. His illness has made him popular.
if he didnt have the illness, he would be an ordinary unknown physicist.
Not true, he did much of his most ground breaking work on black holes etc back in the 70s before he became seriously ill.
Hence, he was well known in the physics community before he ended up in a wheel chair etc.

Whether or not he would have become as famous among the general public is another question.
 
I saw a television special on Hawking that showed how he works, at least how he was working at that point in his life. I believe it was filmed somewhere 2000-2010, probably right about in the middle, ~2005.

Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoV1ZH_sYQw&feature=related

^^pt 4 and pt 5 is where they show the assistant working with him, but the whole program is pretty interesting.

He has an assistant who is also highly trained in the physics he works on, either a grad student or a postdoc, and Hawking guides him towards the concepts he should investigate. The assistant does ALL the calculations, sometimes taking months just to discover what Hawking was trying to imply.

They also showed Hawking dictating to the assistant, which was excruciating to watch. The assistant would anticipate every word Hawking wanted to write, sometimes having to run down a long list of words or phrases before getting it correct, and Hawking would twitch his face in certain ways that meant yes or no.
 
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Dear diligence,

Very much thanks for this link and summary. I have some difficulty in viewing Youtube due to censorship but I will try to get the video.

Bob
 

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