So, what’s your Hawking number?
I’m referring, of course, to the notion that everyone is separated by no more than six degrees. The mathematicians really got the ball rolling with their concept of an “Erdös number,” based on collaborations with the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. In the early days of the public Internet (that is, when Usenet newsgroups were a big thing), a long series of posts linking Kevin Bacon to other Hollywood celebrities led to a popular game, and eventually a website, for calculating “Bacon numbers.”
Of course, I wanted to calculate my own Bacon number. Around that time, a couple of things happened: one friend from my college newspaper had a bit part in Ron Howard’s The Paper, and another friend had a major CGI credit in Howard’s next film, Apollo 13. Thus, if you limit the Bacon game to actors, my Bacon number is 3: me -> my friend -> Robert Duvall (who was also in The Paper) -> Kevin Bacon. But if you include crew members, my Bacon number is only 2: me -> my other friend -> Kevin Bacon, who was of course in Apollo 13.
When I learned of the death of Stephen Hawking, my first thought was of one friend who got his Ph.D. at Cambridge University: Jonathan McDowell, the “Jonathan’s Space Report” guy. I’ve known him for almost 30(!) years now; when our friendship was new, A Brief History of Time was just hitting the bestseller lists. I checked with Jonathan, who confirmed that his doctoral adviser at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy was Bernard Carr, whose doctoral adviser in turn was Hawking. So Hawking was Jonathan’s “academic grandfather.”
And thus, even though I’ve never met this distinguished scientist, my “Hawking number” is 3: me -> Jonathan -> Carr -> Hawking. (Strictly speaking, this number should include only published peer-reviewed journal articles. But in my mind, a friendship counts as much as a film credit or publication.)
Incidentally, Jonathan’s Erdös nuber is 5, so does that make my Erdös number 6?
I’ll leave you with a list of links to news and commentary about Professor Hawking’s passing.
- Institute of Astronomy’s tribute, with a nice photo.
- Associated Press review of Hawking’s career and explanation of why Hawking never got the Nobel Prize, both written by my friend Seth Borenstein.
- Physics Today collected tributes from colleagues.
- Physics World (the British equivalent of Physics Today) published several tribute articles, including a standard obituary, more tributes, book reviews, a TV review from a decade ago, and related laboratory experiments from 2010.
- The Washington Post published a nicely done obituary co-written by Joel Achenbach, the newspaper’s most creative science writer, and Boyce Rensberger, a former Postie (and former member of the D.C. Science Writers Association) who went on to lead the Knight Science Journalism Fellows for a spell. (I suspect that parts of this obituary were written long ago, as is customary with newspapers and major celebrities.)
- Also in the Post, Alan Lightman wrote that Hawking was the ultimate image of mind over matter.
- Dennis Overbye of the New York Times brought a nice lyrical touch to his obituary of Hawking. The Times also published a review of his effect on pop culture and a list of his notable quotations. Overbye also provided a timeline of important events in Hawking’s life and a more personal perspective.
- Science writer Rebecca Boyle described what Hawking taught her.
- A trippy explainer from Vox.
- More than the typical obituary: Roger Penrose elucidated Hawking’s mathematical accomplishments for the Guardian. Also from the Guardian: Hawking was a fierce proponent of Britain’s National Health Service, and how his experience might have been different — and worse — if he’d been born 50 years later. Hawking also gave disabled people hope.
- Yet another science writer said that Hawking was an all too human scientist, wonderfully so. He was very particular about his tea.
- The story behind the film about A Brief History of Time.
- The time Hawking visited a cowboy bar. (Note: The Post published that essay before its editors realized that its author had gotten into trouble, although he has denied the allegations.)
I’m sure there are plenty more tributes out there, but if I spend any more time tracking them down, I’m definitely not going to get my own work done.
I’ll leave you with a couple more relevant tweets from Jonathan McDowell:
I notice a characteristic SWH moment on page 4, where I noted: “at this point Stephen’s chair fell off the back of the dais, and after being rescued he joked that he had fallen off the edge of the universe”
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 14, 2018