Monday, October 10, 2005

A briefer history of time

David Goss has informed me about an interview that promotes a new book
that Stephen Hawking wrote with Leonard Mlodinow. It is presented as the second greatest book ever; guess which one is the best book. The journalist, Emma Brockes, has apparently sent Hawking a sequence of long, chaotic, diluted, unseparated, and emotional questions - judging by Hawking's response:
  • “I want shorter, better focused, numbered questions, not a stream of consciousness.”
In the new book, many more sections than ever before are dedicated to string theory and M-theory. I have always been impressed by Hawking's ability and will to follow all the new developments in physics. Emma Brockes asked Hawking "how string theory will impact human lives if it is proved correct". Hawking - who is most likely used to this type of questions - answers
  • “When we understand string theory, we will know how the universe began. It won’t have much effect on how we live, but it is important to understand where we come from and what we can expect to find as we explore.”
Hawking was also asked about the reasons behind the small percentage of women in science, and he thinks the same thing as many of us:
  • “In the past, there was active discrimination against women in science. That has now gone, and although there are residual effects, these are not enough to account for the small numbers of women, particularly in mathematics and physics.” Twitch, bleep. “It is generally recognised that women are better than men at languages, personal relations and multi-tasking, but less good at map-reading and spatial awareness. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that women might be less good at mathematics and physics. Of course, these are differences between the averages only. There are wide variations about the mean.”
Emma Brockes - who, using her words, imagines cheese strings every time Hawking says "string theory" - apparently disagreed with Hawking, arguing that
  • The problem with Hawking’s voice synthesiser is that there is not much tonal variation; I assume the map-reading, spatial-awareness thing is a joke. The women-being-less-good- at-science thing is clearly not; it is a widely held but rarely admitted-to assumption that, if not itself chauvinistic, is always made so by its corollary -- that science and maths are “harder”, more rigorous and ultimately more relevant disciplines than flaky “women’s” subjects.
I assure Ms. Brockes that Stephen Hawking was not joking about map-reading and spatial awareness. D.G. has quipped that if President Summers made such an interview, it "might not only have cost Mr. Summers his gig at Harvard, but also perhaps some of his reproductive apparatus....". ;-)

Let me mention that if the journal wanted to present evidence (or at least create an impression) that Hawking is wrong, they may have wanted to choose a different journalist than Emma Brockes. :-) Nothing against her! And nothing against her interview which I found very good - although not exactly as a source of information about physics. And I appreciate that she kept the nice title although Hawking apparently did not fit too well into her preconceptions about the world.

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