Setting the record straight in this brief moment in time

17 March 2018

I expect to be lambasted for publishing this short article, but my need to see that authentic news prevails, fortifies me for the inevitable consequences of daring to go against the grain of 'political correctness'.

At the outset let me state unequivocally that the recently departed Stephen Hawking was a brilliant theoretical physicist. As a neurosurgeon and general neuroscience person let me also acknowledge the maintenance of life and full cognitive function in this individual for most of his life, while afflicted with a potentially fatal condition that usually claims its victims within two to five years of diagnosis. I emphasize ‘the maintenance of life’ since Stephen Hawking was essentially maintained on permanent life support. Available resources provided full ventilation since 1985 as well as other life–sustaining support together with state-of-the-art communication technology, to boot. These are the supportive aids that the 'average' afflicted individual does not have access to.

Stephen Hawking was at least as famous as Einstein in the eyes of the lay public. This was primarily due to the publication of his book ‘A brief history of time’. However in the world of theoretical physics there was a very different perception. Hawking was not the first individual to postulate what was to become known as ‘Hawking Radiation’. It was in fact the Mexican-Israeli physicist, Jacob Bekenstein who first postulated the existence of this radiation as emanating from black holes. According to the physicist Marek Karliner, Hawking initially scorned Bekenstein’s ideas regarding the thermodynamics of black holes. But in setting out to disprove Bekenstein, Hawking found that Bekenstein was correct - and promptly took ownership of Hawking Radiation rather than what would have been the more honest and appropriate approach – sharing the concept with Bekenstein in the form of Bekenstein-Hawking Radiation. For without Bekenstein’s findings, it is unlikely that Hawking would ever have expanded the concept to conclusion – and taken the prize for himself!

In the context of the integration of the neurosciences with psychoneuro-immunology (PNI – the study of the influences of mind states on immune function), a mind state akin to hopeless-helplessness (the stuff associated with existential crises in life) has been shown to predispose to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation in turn has been shown to pre-empt and accompany many serious medical conditions including Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), which was Hawking’s affliction. I would theorize that it was the apparent existential career crisis that befell Hawking prior to gaining traction in cosmology, which may have set the scene for the development of his condition. This may have been compounded by inherent nurture-deprivation components (he was born in the middle of the war years - 1942) which could have converged as the causative etiology for his motor neuron disease.

I have made a study of several patients who developed ALS. In a significant proportion there was a preceding profile of career and personal crises leading to a major existential crisis. This was so aptly illustrated in one of our national rugby players who died last year, Joost van der Westhuizen.

On the converse side, wellness and performance are enhanced by a mind state of ongoing meaningful and purposeful action, fueled by persistent curiosity. This I believe is what sustained Hawking for so long, in the face of a devastating condition. However in his uncompromising driven quest, the lives of others closest to him had to be compromised sacrificially in order for him to reach personal fulfillment. And here I acknowledge the great value contribution of Hawking’s first wife Jane.

For all his aspired wisdom, Hawking made some questionable statements in the course of his life. In 2011 he pronounced that there was no need for a Creator – everything could be explained on the basis of the Big Bang and gravity. The immediate question that springs to mind in response to this dumb statement is what or who then created the Big Bang and gravity? Physicists (including Hawking) have hidden behind the concept of the Laws of the Universe. Is this very different from the Source Files of the Universe? Perhaps the latter concept gets too close to creationism, which most physicists find abhorrent.

Hawking Radiation remains purely a theoretical concept. It is unlikely to ever be proven. Consequently Hawking was not awarded a Nobel Prize for this work. And so I arrive at the key question – what is the value contribution of Hawking’s work and for that matter, the work of generations of theoretical physicists to our individual lives? I have no answer to this right now. Only time will tell. As regards Hawking, indeed his life was inspirational in having maintained a high-level of cognitive activity in the face of great physical challenges (with the support of people and technology). It stirs us to acknowledge and cherish the blessings that we each have and not to take life for granted. It also reminds us that while we are each unique beings with the potential to contribute unique value to ourselves, to our personal environments and to the environment at large, we are limited in what we can really change in the greater scheme of things. Finally, one element which appears to be somewhat diminished in the Hawking narrative needs to be acknowledged and incorporated into our lives – that of gratitude.

Hawking encouraged us to be curious. Let’s be curious with respect and gratitude ... and a touch of humility.


Based on comments received after publication of this article, I decided to seek out more background information as well as Bekenstein's personal view on the subject that was dealt with in this article. Bekenstein did indeed pre-empt Hawking in proposing both black hole radiation as well as entropy, published in 1972. Towards the end of that year, at a conference in France, Hawking angrily challenged Bekenstein publicly about his erroneous assertions. In 1974 Hawking mathematically proved Bekenstein correct on both the radiation and the entropy, but kept it under wraps so as not to expose his original mistake. Hawking then expanded on the radiation component beyond that which Bekenstein had elucidated. Ultimately Bekenstein accepted that the radiation be called Hawking-Bekenstein, since Hawking had taken the concept further in the definition of the radiation, but requested that his own name come first on the entropy component - hence it is referred to as Bekenstein-Hawking entropy. In regard to the radiation, the march of time has resulted in it being referred to simply as Hawking Radiation by the physics world. Interestingly, Bekenstein was a very spiritual person with strong leanings towards creationism as opposed to Hawking's atheism.


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