Stephen Hawking, black holes, and scientific celebrity

The active galaxy Centaurus A, rendered in several different types of light. Note in radio waves (the central image at right), the galaxy itself seems to disappear, replaced by crossing jets of radio-emitting jets. Those are produced by the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core.

The active galaxy Centaurus A, rendered in several different types of light. Note in radio waves (the central image at right), the galaxy itself seems to disappear, replaced by crossing jets of radio-emitting jets. Those are produced by the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core.

For the upcoming ScienceOnline 2014 meeting, I’m leading a session titled “Reporting Incremental Science in a World that wants Big Results“. It’s an important topic. We who communicate science to the general public have to evaluate stories to see if they’re worth covering, then translate them in such a way that conveys their significance without hyping them (ideally at least). That’s challenging to do on deadline, and we’re not always or maybe even usually experts on the topics we report. I know a fair amount about cosmology and gravitational physics, but very little about galactic astronomy or planetary science — yet I must write about them, because it’s my job.

So Stephen Hawking’s recent talk on black holes is an interesting case study. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but I wrote not one but two articles on the subject yesterday. Article 1 was in Slate:

Hawking’s own thinking about black holes has changed over time. That’s no criticism: Evidence in science often requires us to reassess our thinking. In this case, Hawking originally argued that black holes violated quantum mechanics by destroying information, then backed off from that assertion based on ideas derived from string theory (namely, the holographic principle). Not everyone agrees with his change of heart, though: The more recent model he used doesn’t correspond directly to our reality, and it may not have an analog for the universe we inhabit. The new talk suggests he has now moved on from both earlier ideas. That’s partly what raises doubts in my mind about the “no event horizons” proposal in the online summary. Is this based on our cosmos or yet another imaginary one of the sort physicists are fond of inventing to guide their thinking? In my reading, it’s hard to tell, and in the absence of a full explanation we are free to project our own feelings about both Hawking and his science onto the few details available. [Read more…]

Article 2 was a follow-up on my own blog:

But at the same time, we have to admit that nobody—not Nature News, not Slate.com—would have covered a paper this preliminary had Hawking’s name not been attached. Other people are working on the same problem (and drawing different conclusions!), but they can’t command space on major science news sites. So, by covering Hawking’s talk, we are back on that treacherous path: we’re showing how science works in a way, but we risk saying that a finding is important because somebody famous is behind it. [Read more…]

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