The Death of a Genius
Earlier this week, Stephen Hawking died. It was a sad day for lovers of science.
Hawking’s breakthrough work from 1974 provided the world a new understanding of black holes. It also unified, for the first time, quantum mechanics with gravity — laying the conceptual foundation on which any attempt at a unified theory of physics must build.
There is, however, another important insight to extract from Hawking’s efforts — one that’s less often discussed…
Hawking began serious work on his breakthrough calculation a decade after he was diagnosed with ALS. By this point, he was unable to read books on his own or write down equations.
As the New York Times reports in their (excellent) obituary, Hawking had friends “turn the pages of quantum theory textbooks as [he] sat motionless staring at them for months.”
Unable to write, he then attacked the problem through mental “pictures and diagrams,” seeking visual intuition (a technique also deployed by Einstein).
“People have the mistaken impression that mathematics is just equations,” he once explained. “In fact, equations are just the boring part of mathematics.”
When it came time to work out the “boring” equations for his breakthrough work, he did the whole calculation, carefully, step-by-step, in his head.
The resulting 1974 article, published in the journal Nature, was described by Hawking’s thesis adviser as “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.”
This part of Hawking’s story is important because it underscores how little we still understand about the attention capital latent in the human brain.
Driven by the constraints of his affliction, Hawking approached his research with an inventive cognitive style that allowed him to make progress where his peers were stuck.
In doing so, he demonstrated that when it comes to feats of inventive concentration, our brains are likely capable of much more than we suspect.
When I first got started in writing, as a nobody 21-year-old with a modest book contract from Random House, the NPR host and career coach/writer Marty Nemko was one of the first professionals to take me and my ideas seriously. He recently published a book of some his favorite essays. In the spirit of returning the favor, I want to bring it to your attention.