Comfortably sitting in the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in Japantown in San Francisco, I was watching The Theory of Everything with an audience of hundreds. Like them, I was eager to watch the life of Hawking; like them I was moved by his extraordinary story; like them I was restraining myself from crying, especially when the camera at the end of the movie unfolded his life backward—from his disabled to his abled body, from old age to youth, from fame to early struggles, from stability to despair—like a star collapsing on itself, the universe returning to its origin, a reversal in time or time travel, all topics so dear to Hawking.
Unlike the others around me, however, Hawking was not a stranger to me. As I was watching the twists and turns of Hawking’s bicycle in the hands of Eddie Redmayne qua Hawking in the narrow and meandering streets of Cambridge, I could not stop thinking of myself pedaling as fast as I could in the direction of Hawking’s house where he had invited me for supper. I remember entering the garden through a little gate and walking toward his spacious and comfortable house where dinner was waiting for me. For the menu: roast beef and potatoes, accompanied by a lovely Bordeaux, especially ordered by Hawking to honor my Frenchness. After the dinner, we would meet in his living room, to talk about physics via his computer.
This was not the first time I had met him, however. He had already invited me to accompany him at High Table at Caius College in Cambridge, and previously, I had dinner with him and other physicists in Berlin, at a string theory conference, an evening that memorably ended up in a nightclub where Hawking had expressed his desire to—of all things—dance! I had interviewed him more than once, and I had observed him working on numerous occasions in his office and at conferences.
I was, however, neither friend nor a colleague, nor even a journalist. Rather, I was a philosopher and an anthropologist of science and technology who had decided to study Hawking, the man and the genius. The dinner at his home was the end point of my enquiry. After 10 years of having researched, observed and interviewed Hawking and hundreds of people acquainted with him—assistants, nurses, colleagues, students, journalists, filmmakers—it was my last chance to ask him questions about his way of thinking. Indeed, how could he … think? I know this question seems strange for us Westerners, who, since Descartes, are used to thinking about thinking as the product of the mind alone. This seems almost disrespectful in the case of Hawking, since as we have repeatedly been told—in books, articles, and movies—that Hawking’s mind is especially good at it. “Pictures,” he replied.
As I was about to pursue my question, the crucial question that could give me the final answer, Hawking’s nurse poked her head through the door just as the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock sounded the hour. It was 11:00 already. We had spent three hours together. The process was slow and tortuous. I was asking him questions, he was responding slowly by selecting words on his computer. Hawking had just switched over to a new device to communicate. He was starting to use his cheek to select words on his screen as he was losing strength in his fingers and could no longer use the handheld commutator that linked him to his computer. He did seem tired.
Before I could even thank him, however, he was already gone, firmly pushed by his nurse in the direction of the door: no Hawking anymore, just the back of a wheelchair and the back of his nurse disappearing on the horizon. I was left alone, abandoned in the now empty living room pondering what it all meant. “Pictures?” In his mind, I guess. Fair enough, the mind is essential and Hawking’s mind functions well. But is it really the only thing we need to produce scientific theories?
In the movie, it is striking to see how Jane, Hawking’s wife, becomes, as the director has commented, an extension of Hawking. We can see her becoming Hawking’s legs, arms, and lips; as his body loses strength, we see her taking care of his physical and emotional needs, giving him the possibility to live and pursue his academic work. In the same way, as Walt Woltosz, the designer of the software that Hawking uses, told me, Hawking’s computer had become an extension of himself. Indeed, it is well known that Hawking has refused to change his voice despite its American accent because it has become part of his identity, or that he is very reluctant to modify special software that he likes even if he could be faster with more advanced versions.
However, we don’t associate his extreme dependence on his wife and nurses and computers (to both live and communicate) with his ability to produce science. Again, this is because we are in the habit of believing that science is the product of thinking, and we believe that thinking does not rely on anything other than a good brain. Hawking says much the same thing when he notes that to be an astrophysicist “no physical ability is required;” it’s all in the mind.
Does this mean that all the humans and machines—the computers, synthesizers, wheelchairs, nurses and assistants—that allow him to live, move and communicate, are absent or unnecessary when it comes to the mind or the so-called intellectual work?
In the movie we see the roles played by Hawking’s mentors, Dennis Sciama and Roger Penrose, in the formation of his thoughts, but not more than this. We have a glimpse into the world of science represented by a few lectures by, and in front of, white men, a few equations on the blackboard, and a few flashes of inspiration. This is important, but this is not all.
To produce scientific theory, we need more than this. Indeed, this is what I discovered and wrote about in my book Hawking Incorporated.
Because Hawking can’t write with his hands, can’t go back and forth or to and fro, can’t get up to scribble an equation on a black board, or do complex calculations by either hand or computer, he has to delegate all these tasks to the devices and people around him, especially to his students. Like Jane, they have become an extension of himself. Sometimes Hawking will send his students to do calculations with just an idea and a model, then they will work for months, before they come back to do a demonstration before him. He will approve or not with a blink of his eyes. A “no” might send them back for a few more months to work on a better solution.
The students will inform, prove, calculate, recontextualize, extend and translate “his” (Hawking’s) discoveries and ideas. They also will have to draw for him specific diagrams—for example, the Penrose Carter diagrams—another kind of intellectual prostheses that enable him to project himself into the universe.
But is this way of working specific to Hawking?
In my view no, Hawking is not exceptional in this regard. Other physicists work that way. His disability, by forcing him to delegate his competences, makes visible what we normally don’t see: the indispensable role of instruments, machines and students as loci of mobilization of information and collaboration, of diagrams, institutions and financial resources that all physicists need if they are to think.
And, why does knowing this matter? It matters because it gives us the possibility of grasping science as not fundamentally different from other forms of life. It matters because it reminds us that in the same way Redmayne would not be able to be Hawking without props, choreographers, makeup artists, filmmakers, movies, actors and journalists, Hawking the man would not be able to be Hawking the genius without the collective composed of nurses, wives, computers, diagrams, colleagues, students and institutions upon which he depends and who depend on him.
Hawking the genius is the result of these numerous extensions that I call his extended bodies. This in no way detracts from his genius. It does, however, offer another way of thinking about it, about science, about the individual, and about us—human beings always more connected, always more wired and always more dependent on others, whether they are humans, instruments or machines.