January 23, 2012


Diderot, a doyen of the French Enlightenment, still believed that religion was essential for social unity.
Matthew Arnold feared the spread of godlessness among the Victorian working class. It could be countered, he thought, with a poeticised form of a Christianity in which he himself had long ceased to believe. The 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte, an out-and-out materialist, designed an ideal society complete with secular versions of God, priests, sacraments, prayer and feast days.
There is something deeply disingenuous about this whole tradition. "I don't believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should" is the slogan of thinkers supposedly devoted to the integrity of the intellect. If the Almighty goes out of the window, how are social order and moral self-discipline to be maintained? It took the barefaced audacity of Friedrich Nietzsche to point out that if God was dead, then so was Man – or at least the conception of humanity favoured by the guardians of social order. The problem was not so much that God had inconveniently expired; it was that men and women were cravenly pretending that he was still alive, and thus refusing to revolutionise their idea of themselves.
God may be dead, but Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists is a sign that the tradition from Voltaire to Arnold lives on. The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn't be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised. De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion "sporadically useful, interesting and consoling", which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low. Since Christianity requires one, if need be, to lay down one's life for a stranger, he must have a strange idea of consolation. Like many an atheist, his theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned.
De Botton does not want people literally to believe, but he remains a latter-day Matthew Arnold, as his high Victorian language makes plain.

January 6, 2012

An Unfettered Mind -

As famed physicist Stephen Hawking turns 70, the subject that most occupies his thoughts is not how the universe arose from nothing, but: "Women. They are a complete mystery."

Hawking also listed what he saw as his "biggest blunder in science" (his now-repudiated insistence that information was destroyed in black holes), the most exciting development in physics during his career (the discovery of the big bang's imprint in cosmic microwave radiation) and the potential discovery that would do the most to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos (discovery of super symmetric particles at the Large Hadron Collider).

But it's his brief comment on women that attracted the most attention: How could it be that a scientist who has plumbed the deepest mysteries of the cosmos finds himself mystified by women?

The saga of the super-smart professor who is flummoxed by interpersonal relations, particularly with the opposite sex, is at least as old as Sigmund Freud (who famously wondered, "What does a woman want?"), Jerry Lewis' fictional "Nutty Professor" and the stereotype we have of Albert Einstein. It's as up to date as the TV astrophysicist on "The Big Bang Theory" who can't say a word to women unless he's under the influence.

Somehow, folks get a satisfying sense of karma from the idea that geniuses are socially inept. But the stereotype doesn't really hold true, particularly in Hawking's case.

Like the real-life Einstein, Hawking has had an active romantic life, marked by two marriages. (Einstein's second marriage ended with the death of his wife and cousin Elsa; Hawking's ended in an ugly divorce.) Hawking's disease does not affect his sexual ability or his potency, and the fact that he's fathered three children is evidence of that.

He's been called an "incorrigible flirt" and a "party animal who likes to dance in his wheelchair." Having seen Hawking playfully chase his grandson around a backstage room in his wheelchair after a Seattle lecture, I can readily believe the "party animal" part. And having seen the way his expressive eyes light up a room, I know he can turn on the charm despite his disability.

Through the years, Hawking has had a special thing for Marilyn Monroe. A picture of the enigmatic blond hangs in his Cambridge office, and Hawking once told The Guardian that if he could travel back in time, he'd rather meet Monroe than the great physicist Isaac Newton, who "seems to have been an unpleasant character."

Even as he approaches the age of 70, Hawking seems to have kept his playful, pleasant, mischievous character. That may help explain his latest comment about the mystique surrounding women, as well as his own mystique.

Here's a classic example: Actress Jane Fonda was clearly won over last year when Hawking came backstage after her performance in a play about a woman musicologist in the early stages of neurodegenerative disease. When Fonda asked Hawking what he thought of her performance, Hawking typed out a short response: "You were my heartthrob" — which got a big laugh. Fonda came away starstruck. "This man who cannot move or speak, can, nonetheless, comprehend the incomprehensible," she wrote.

Hmm ... Maybe women aren't such a complete mystery to Hawking after all.

Hawking retired from his post as a mathematics professor at Cambridge in 2009 and is now director of research at the university's Center for Theoretical Cosmology. He also holds a distinguished research chair at Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. For an in-depth look at his life, his work and his mystique, check out "Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind," a new biography by Kitty Ferguson.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich