- Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject by Hélène Mialet
The distinguished authors of the blurbs on the back—including Judith Butler, Bruno Latour, and Simon Schaffer—read this book as teaching very general lessons about, for example, “the contemporary articulation of ‘man’ ” (Butler) or “a new anthropology of the contemporary scientist” (Schaffer). I read it in a much more particular way, which in no way excludes the general lessons.
No living scientist has more name recognition than Hawking. He has long suffered from what is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, which cripples his body to the extent that it is now almost completely incapable of movement. So how does he carry on as a creative thinker? Part of the story is how he makes use of an array of assistants, students, colleagues, technicians, and publicists. The title, Hawking Incorporated, is apt, for the book is not only about a collectivity that enables him but also about the relation between this very special mind and this [End Page 553] totally debilitated body still able to contribute brilliantly in our corporeal world. For me, there is a special interest arising from a seeming impossibility. Hawking’s type of cosmology is worked on by drawing diagrams that enable those skilled in drawing and manipulating them to represent infinite-dimensional relativistic space-time on two-dimensional paper. The technique was developed by Hawking and colleagues at Cambridge University, in the first instance by Roger Penrose and Brandon Carter, so these are often called Penrose diagrams or Carter diagrams. That is how, in this field, you think—by a highly specialized kind of manual-intellectual dexterity. The idea of thinking just in your head has long been exploded, but what if there is not much active left of your body but your brain?
Hawking is enabled by a special kind of incorporation. Every year he picks a stellar entering graduate student who has been proved in the previous year by an extremely demanding Cambridge mathematics qualification. The student is taught a problem of Hawking’s current interest, and learns to make and explore the diagrams that are needed. And so, at any time there are four or five acolytes who serve as Hawking’s extended body. The problems they address are usually different for each successive assistant. Mialet manages to convey what is going on in a remarkably accessible way. She has told me that she still finds the diagrams daunting, so there is no talking down to the reader who shares her difficulties, such as myself. I have emphasized the diagrams because they are so central to the scientific side of the story but may not leap to the attention of the general reader. They are only one fragment of a “moving portrait of an embodied mind at work” (Latour)—but the embodiment is mostly in bodies other than Haw king’s. A unique story.
Ian Hacking is emeritus professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Collège de France and University Professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. His books include The Social Construction of What?; Mad Travelers; Rewriting the Soul; Representing and Intervening; Historical Ontology; The Taming of Chance; The Emergence of Probability; The Logic of Statistical Inference; and Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? A recipient of the Holberg International Memorial Prize and the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art, he is a fellow of the British Academy, fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and Companion of the Order of Canada.