Hawking: The power of popular science

20 March 2018

Interview with 

Gerry Gilmore, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University

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Stephen Hawking undeniably made great contributions to science, but he’s also done a lot for the public understanding of science. And Professor Gerry Gilmore, who’s also a cosmologist himself and a powerful proponent of public engagement with science, explains how to Georgia Mills... 

Gerry - The most important thing to note is that no-one listening to this programme doesn’t already know who Stephen Hawking was. He was arguably the most famous person on the planet working in such esoteric subjects. That immediately breaks down the stereotype that scientists are old, white men, wearing white coats and normal people can’t do anything like that. So that was probably the most famous and most significant of all.

His book really took off, so it raised the whole profile of people thinking big questions and about really really broad topics. And that is enormously important because the biggest impact that we as scientists can have is not to answer the questions, but to get real people in the real world asking questions themselves. They look around them and say why is it so? How did that happen? Where did it come from? And that not only stimulates young people to take up challenging careers. We still get undergraduate applications every year saying I got stimulated by reading Stephen Hawking’s book; sometimes they even have!

[laughter]

The real thing is that, if everybody starts questioning what they see, then we would not be in this silly situation where no-one believes experts, or where fake news is marauding the world. You can say, “well, let me just stop and think,” and just encouraging that, which he did spectacularly. It’s fundamentally necessary for society, and he deserved enormous respect and credit for his efforts in doing it.

Georgia - Something that I’ve noticed is the best scientists in the world sometimes are completely unable to break down their work to something that someone from another field might be able to understand. So to have this skill, to be able to break down such huge concepts, that’s quite incredible?

Gerry - You’re right. It is rather rare. It’s not as rare perhaps as some people think. You keep having excellent people on this programme who do a great job of it. Popular science books are on the bestseller charts all the time. But, nonetheless, yeah, some of the concepts - you heard Andrew Pontzen a minute ago trying to tell you what the inside of a black hole was all about - some of those concepts are pretty intellectually challenging. And particularly when you get to the really basic properties of nature, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and so on. But the fact that it is even possible to think about these things is what’s really interesting. Kids can dream!

Georgia - I fondly remember the episode of the Simpsons Stephen Hawking appeared in. And he also appeared in Star Trek; The Big Bang Theory; he lent his voice to a Pink Floyd track; so what what kind of effect do you think this would have have had?

Gerry - Well, this was the real key; this was the fact that you get out of the narrow niche of the people we normally talk to. Out there, there’s a small subset of the community that listens to programmes like this and thinks and reads. But then there’s a whole huge world of people who are only vaguely aware that other worlds exist, and crossing those boundaries was something that his image took off.

Just look at the paralympics as an example. This year’s paralympics ended with a tribute to Stephen Hawking. Now that’s a whole new world and a whole different community globally who can suddenly realise, "hey, it’s socially acceptable to think about things and ask questions."

Georgia - Being a nerd is cool! Has this brought more people into the field of physics - what would you say?

Gerry - Probably. But actually, that’s not so important anyway to be honest. The world does need more physicists and more people studying technical subjects. But, most of all, the world needs people who can stop and think...

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