A Brief History of Stephen Hawking

This is 3rd in a series on the Sociology of Knowledge in honor of Carl Sagan. It is brought to all graduate students in sociology through the good offices of the Sociology Department of the University of Vermont. These mini-lectures are part of the Transforming Sociology Series of the Red Feather Institute for Advanced Studies in Sociology.

TR Young

A Brief History of Stephen Hawking

Most of you know the remarkable story of Stephen Hawking, a British Astro-physicist who occupies the Newton Chair at Cambridge. Hawking has been robbed of both voice and muscle by disease but still has his wonderful brain and enquiring mind. Oddly enough, his infirmity makes Hawking a most appropriate icon for Modern Science, removed as it is from the larger human enterprize.

In this story, I will use Hawking as metaphor and icon for modernistic knowledge processes. He stands at the apex of this remarkable transformation in the sociology of science and serves well as such. It is particularly appropriate that we do so since the series honors Carl Sagan...between them, Hawking and Sagan, Astro-physics has been vested with both passion and compassion. Where Hawking added depth to modern science, Sagan widened it and democratized it.

THE BEGINNINGS OF SCIENCE: For most of human history, the knowledge process was oriented and dedicated to the various religions of humankind. The mission of the knowledge process was to discover the plan of the gods while the methods of knowledge required one put away desire; strip away the senses of touch, sight, sound and taste; enter into absolute communion with the Divine.

At some point in human history, mathematics slowly evolved to become central to the knowledge process. Morris Kline, (1972) in his wonderful 3 volume set on the History of Mathematics, tells us that Logistica, the use of numbers, began with a people called the Akkadians about 4500 years ago. The practical problems they faced included re-mapping the boundaries of fields left flooded with mud and debris after the seasonal floods of the Tigris, Euphrates and later, the Nile. Then too, as the great hydraulic societies developed, imperial granaries had to be measured and rationed out through the year. Thus, both trigonometry and geometry were born.

'Twas quite natural that mathematics was joined to theology. The remarkable order in the universe; in the tides, the seasonal floods, the comings and goings of the sun and stars led the priestly mathematicians to assign a remarkable genius and a universal agency to their gods.

COPERNICUS AND NEWTON. There are many great minds which gave birth to modern science but by 1543, Copernicus had given the world a modern astro-physics with the sun at the center of our small cosmos. Then came Newton who gave us both mission and method for the knowledge process.

The MISSION of the knowledge process was/is to map out the orderliness in physics, chemistry, physiology, biology, psychology and yes, sociology. The end game was to build formal, axiomatic theory. That remains the point and purpose of graduate study in the various disciplines today.

The METHOD of the knowledge process includes logical positivism; the use of akkadian numbers, greek/indian/arabic mathematics, aristotlean logic, leibnizian calculus together with Pascalian laws of probability with which, with the method of successive approximations, come ever closer to absolute truth. In contrast to pre-modern knowledge processes, this method requires that one expand and refine the senses; touch, sight, sound, smell and taste rather than to put them away and merge with super-natural realms.

Every doctoral candidate in physics, chemistry, physiology and sociology is required to master this method and to adopt this mission.

THE ENGINES OF CHANGE. The change from pre-modern to modern knowledge missions/methods was driven by human interests and professional paradigms. It is this story which gives rise to such as Sagan and Hawking. And it occurs in history. It is the engines which drive the knowledge process which I want to set forth in this tribute to Sagan. It is sociology which brought us these two quite different and quite remarkable scientists. I will lay out the progress as I see it from a critical/post-modern and marxian sociology of knowledge.

Reading History: one reads history through one's knowledge paradigms. Slowly a variety of religious paradigms have been displaced/supplemented by much secular, much more empirical paradigms yet all are driven by human desire.

The Calamities of nature continue to drive the knowledge process. Floods, famine, quake and disease inform desire while desire impels the knowledge quest. The way one understands this great change in the knowledge process depends upon the lens one uses to organize the historical data.

Following Foucault, I will assume that all truth-claims now set forth in graduate study and in science itself are claims for power; empowerment of a discipline; empowerment of a class; empowerment of a nation or of some other social system.

A.  If one is religious, then one see the great change in the knowledge process as the Will of God who, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, realizes Himself in the World as Knowledge is improved. Conversely, one could as do many, claim that modern science is a fraud and an evil conspiracy to defeat the Will of God...their god.

B.  If one is a mathematician, one makes much of the discrepancies between pre-modern myths of creation; of flood, famine and every disease from madness to AIDS. For mathematicians, such stories are partisan and primitive; scarcely worth the time to tell. Mathematicians point to the continuing successes of empirical science; hypothesis, prediction, experimentation and validation. The role of reason and the use of ever more sophisticated data gathering and data analyzing tools give modern science power and preference in the knowledge process.

C.  If one is an ecologist, one begins the long march to modern science and thence to the Hawkings and Sagans of the time by looking at the desertification of the Imperial hinterlands in the centuries before Christ. Both Greece and Rome stripped the hills and valleys of Turkey and northern Africa in order to get the grain and build the ships of the imperium.

Cities such as Ephesus, once a seaport is now a barren desert far from the sea...topsoil of a thousand farms flowed to the valley, covered the land and filled the estuary. Now laying barren in the sun, tourists gaze upon them and wonder why people troubled to build the coliseums and great market places in such a place.

Ecologists point to such devastation and observe that, as old lands were exhausted by axe and plow, new lands are sought...and exploraton requires both the building and the sailing of ships to far-away places. It requires the building, training, equiping and moving of armies from Mediterrean shores north and west...North to Europe and West to England.

Astronomy, engineering, ballistics, navigation and exploration gets on better with mathematics than with prayer.

D.  If one is an epidemiologist, one makes much of the pestilence which swept Empire. In Roman times drought brought famine and disease as food supplies failed. The failing of the Roman Empire left Europe vulnerable to Islam. By the 9th century, Islam had enveloped the Mediterrean closing off the ancient trade-routes from Persia and China.

In the 15th century Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and England began to look west across the ocean for another route to the Indies and to China. King Henry of Portugal gave prize to those who navigated the oceans to find colonies for empire. England gave prize to those who build the chronometers with which to find the latitude and longitude for ships at sea. France gave prize to mathematicians who could calculate the interactions of moon, sun and earth.

All these prizes fueled the modern knowledge process. Science began to solve the four unanswerable questions put by sacred texts: Who can tell the way of the eagle in the sky; the way of a serpent upon the rock; the way of a ship at sea and the way of a man with a maid.

E.  If one is a Theologian/sociologist of Religion, cum political scientist, one explains the advent of modern science and thus of our good Hawking by noting that the formation of a Holy Roman empire was crucial when Charles Martel defeated Muslims at Tours in 732...and moonlit Grenada would live again, the glories of yesteryear.

In the years which followed and the knowledge process, the loss of the Holy Land to Islam fueled desire to recapture Jerusalem. Crusade after crusade was launched from Northern Europe...again, military concerns required a much better knowledge process...and much better navigation tools.

More than that, the movement of thousands of crusaders from Europe to Venice to Palestine concentrated wealth in the hands of merchants who needed ships, and shops and banks and communications with other banks around Europe. The whole system of commodity capitalism was greatly enhanced by the crusades.

The crusades brought back mathematics, geometry, algebra, trigonometry and quantification when crusaders returned. The basic tools of modern science began to be merged with the emerging political economy of Europe.

F.  All these historical events gave birth to economics which in turn, began to give its own answers which today shape and mis-shape the knowledge process. British, Scottist, French and German economists began to sing the praises of capitalism and the free market...and indeed, they have much to praise.

By the 1700's, commodity capitalism transformed into Industrial capitalism...new knowedge was essential. Knowledge of metals, chemicals, soils, winds, storms and fuels...Knowledge of prices, costs, demand, value and profit....Knowledge of weapons, soldiers, munitions and roads...knowledge of geography, anthropology, psychology and sociology. Capitalism pushed all that was holy aside and replaced it with goods, ads, markets and malls.

G.  In all this, astro-physics played a central role. It was thought to be a simple, basic, exemplar of the knowledge process...a model upon which all other sciences could be modelled. One could, after Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, predict the motion of a star with a precision which inspires awe...to one foot in 100,000,000,000,000 feet.

Small wonder that newtonian science became the paradigm through which all knowledge must flow. Think on it; with such predictive tools, we could know with certainty the way of a man with a maid, the way of the eagle in the air, the way of a murderer in the city and the way of a thief in the night.

THE END OF STEPHEN HAWKING AND THE BEGINNING OF STEPHEN PFOHL. By the middle of the 20th century, claims were made that human beings had reached the end of history, the end of economics and the end of the knowedge process. All that remained was to fill in the blanks, tidy up the loose ends, chart out the truth tables and, with the state as the agent of the common people, apply these truths to the problems of the world.

I'm sorry to say that the end of the knowledge process is, itself, just another human myth. As we shall see in the 4th part of this series, there is postmodern knowledge process just now aborning which will forever change the missions and the methods of the knowledge process. This third great transformation in human knowledge is built in part upon the critique of European post-modernists and in part upon the new sciences of chaos and complexity.

I will not leave you bereft of hope. There is order in the universe and it can be discovered. Indeed, it can be used to help build a good and decent society...or what is knowledge for??

With wit, wisdom and an abiding sense of the Holy, we too can contribute to human knowledge; we too can begin to solve and resolve social problems...that is where Steve Pfohl comes it...he is the first elected President of SSSP to be invested and immersed in the postmodern.

This series will conclude with the statement that the human process requires all three forms of knowedge; pre-modern, modern and postmodern knowledge can be, must be integrated to serve the human project writ large.

TR Young

Red Feather
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