Stephen Hawking, the subject of this month's cover story, "Leaping the Abyss" (page 24), prompts a fascinating and perhaps sordid question: How does such a brilliant mind exist in such a warped and wizened body? By my reckoning, the story's most interesting revelation about the 60-year-old physicist and improbable best-selling author -- The Universe in a Nutshell and A Brief History of Time have to rank as two of the most unlikely and unread tomes to ever top the book charts -- is that he has been humbled intellectually as well as physically.
To look at the man, of course, is to understand how Hawking has been brutally cut down to size by reality. The Lou Gehrig's disease he has suffered for 20 years has reduced him to a cyborg who can get around only via a motorized wheelchair and who can communicate only via a keyboard and transponder that translate his British thoughts into halting, tinny, American-accented speech. He has been robbed even of the ability to chew, so a nurse must spoon-feed him every meal. Such difficulties would overwhelm most of us, but they seem to be little more than trifling inconveniences for Hawking.
Yet he has also been slapped down intellectually -- in a way arguably as striking as the details of his physical condition. Back in 1980, "I suggested we might find a complete unified theory by the end of the century," Hawking tells his friend, reason Contributing Editor Gregory Benford. "OK, I was wrong," he says with a computer-generated laugh. "I was a bit optimistic....But I still think there's a 50-50 chance that we will find a complete unified theory in the next 20 years." At the same time, he grants the possibility that "there is no ultimate theory of physics at all."
In such a moment, Hawking sounds positively postmodern, famously defined by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard as incredulous toward "metanarratives," skeptical about grand theories and belief systems that explain every burp and hiccup in human and natural history. What I find most compelling about Hawking is his response to intense physical and intellectual limitations: Despite such constraints, he continues to engage the world around him in profoundly inquisitive ways. He continues to seek knowledge and experience even as -- or perhaps because -- they complicate his theories. In doing so, he provides an inspiring role model for intellectual endeavor.
This issue offers a sharp contrast to Hawking's sensibility. Ironically, it involves a recent book that self-consciously traffics in postmodern argot and thought, a book that ostensibly takes as its starting point the inability to gain complete and total knowledge. In "Empire Burlesque" (page 50), Tom Peyser analyzes the academic blockbuster Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire purports to trace the nature and implications of globalization, and to expose the single system that controls information, capital, and people -- what the authors call "the sovereign power that governs the world."
Yet as Peyser demonstrates, rather than developing an informed take on important contemporary events, Hardt and Negri rely on "loopy 1960s utopianism, apologetics for the Soviet Union, paranoia...sheer blood lust...[and] the crudest kind of Marxist boilerplate" to produce a work that says far more about the unrealized potential of cultural studies than about the world around us.
A physicist who doubts whether there is an "ultimate theory of physics at all"? Two humanists who are quick to attribute everything to a "sovereign power that governs the world"? A unified field theory seems very far off indeed.