Marcia Bjornerud on Timefulness

Timefulness coverFew of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

What exactly do you mean by Timefulness?

It’s the habit of seeing things not merely as they are now, but also recognizing how they evolved—and will continue to evolve—over time. In a sense, it’s perceiving the world in four dimensions. I use the word as a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of Timelessness, which is an impossible, and ultimately sterile, aspiration.

Unless you’re jet-setting around the cosmos at relativistic speeds, nothing exists outside the framework of time; every person, idea, culture, organism, landscape, and continent exists in a particular time-stamped moment while also bearing vestiges of a much deeper historical and evolutionary past. We tend to view these entities only as they appear in the current temporal plane, but their paths through time shaped what they are now, and what they may become in the future. In other words, all things are full of Time— they’re Timeful.

The natural world in particular is bursting with backstories— tragedies, comedies, sprawling million-year sagas, chronicles of forgotten empires. Reconceiving everything, including ourselves, as entities sculpted by time is a perceptual shift that can be transformative on the personal and societal levels.

I don’t quite get the connection with geology.

This way of viewing the world is the very essence of geological thinking – being able to hold in the mind’s eye multiple past— and plausible future— iterations of the Earth and its ecosystems. I recognize that geology suffers from a public perception problem; people either associate it with musty museum displays or rapacious oil companies and mineral prospectors. But in fact it’s an intellectually vibrant science that requires exceptional powers of imagination: the capacity to zoom in and out of spatial and temporal scales, and to visualize long vanished landscapes and inaccessible parts of the Earth we can never see directly.

Geology is also a strange field in that it addresses both very pragmatic questions—where to find groundwater, how to protect people from natural hazards—and deep, even philosophical ones: Where do we come from? Why is the Earth the way it is? Both kinds of questions are important to humans, and both require a keen sense of temporal proportion—the relative and absolute durations of the great chapters in the planet’s past, the characteristic rates and timescales of natural phenomena. But as a society, we are largely time-illiterate: shockingly ignorant about how our activities intersect with the Earth’s long-established habits.  

Human and geological timescales are so vastly different – why does it matter if ordinary people have a feeling for ‘deep time’?

Actually, they’re not as disparate as one might think. Geologists have perhaps overemphasized the idea that the Earth is incredibly old and slow-moving and that humans are mere last-minute walk-ons. I think this misrepresents our place on Earth in a number of ways. First, we humans may have taken our current form only recently, but we have very deep roots in the evolutionary tree. Second, even though we may be relative newcomers, we are having an outsized effect on the planet. Finally, the Earth’s habits are really not that sluggish. Today, satellite observations allow us to see glaciers and tectonic plates moving in real time. Many geologic processes—erosion, river migration and climate change, for example—can play out well within a human lifetime. And some of the planet’s behaviors, like earthquakes and landslides, happen so fast that we are left dazed in their aftermath. Earth has many tempos and modes, many still being discovered and documented.

Throughout the book, you weave in the intellectual history of geology and explain how we have come to our current understanding. That must be intentional?

Yes! The story of how humans have gradually come to understand the character of our planet and managed to reconstruct its deep history is itself a fascinating evolutionary tale. Calibrating the geologic timescale is arguably one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Yet it is underappreciated because it is not the work of a solitary genius but instead a collaborative effort of people making observations all around the globe over the past two centuries – and it’s still a work in progress. Along the way, there have been scientists, both amateur and professional, who had brilliant insights but were too far ahead of their time for their ideas to be verified by available data. There have also been experts much celebrated in their own day who proved to be completely wrong about the nature of the Earth and who held the science in check during their lifetimes.

So yes, the book is both about the idiosyncratic history of the Earth, and the equally idiosyncratic history of human understanding of the Earth.

Some people find the idea of geologic time terrifying because it makes them feel insignificant. How do you respond to that?

I can understand that reaction and again I think we geologists ourselves are partly to blame for flogging people over the head with the vastness of geologic time. I had a math professor who was fond of pointing out that, “there are many sizes and shapes of infinity.” The same can be said for different points in the geologic past. Some are a long time ago—some are a long, longtime ago. Developing some ‘depth of field’ in thinking about geologic time makes it seem less like a yawning abyss, and then filling it in with the narrative details of Earth’s development transforms it into an awe-inspiring origin story that embraces, rather than excludes, us. I personally find existential comfort in knowing that I am a resident of an ancient, resilient, marvelously complicated planet that has been teeming with life and continuously reinventing itself for 4 billion years.

OK, but can Timefulness really “help save the world?”

First let me emphasize that by “world” I don’t mean the planet; Earth will be fine with or without us and will survive the damage we are currently inflicting on it in the same way that it has endured previous calamities. It’s the stability of the world as we humans define it— the political, economic, social and cultural world— that is in grave peril. And yes, I would argue that Timeful, long-term thinking is essential to saving that. At a time when we urgently need mechanisms in our political and economic systems that encourage long-term planning, our attention spans keep shrinking. The few leaders who aspire to keep the long view in mind find themselves removed from boardrooms and public office by impatient shareholders, voters and corporate interests that benefit from the short-sightedness of the collective. The capacity to think on even decadal timescales—zooming out just enough to recognize our common past and shared destiny as human creatures on a changing planet— may be a way to spring ourselves out of the polarized, antagonistic, segregated mindsets and habits in which we have trapped ourselves.

The narratives of natural history are a heritage we all share as Earthlings, and expanded awareness of that legacy— a little Timefulness—may liberate us from our self-absorbed narcissism and other self-destructive tendencies.  

 

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Mohamed Noor on Live Long and Evolve

Live Long and Evolve CoverIn Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

You teach courses introducing genetics and evolution, yet rather than writing a book that simply presented the science from your courses, you wrote this book that uses examples from a fictional TV show. Why?

My aim is to try to reach people who may be less inclined to read something that seems like a textbook, but who may consider a different “entry-point” to learning about science and evolution in particular. Science fiction is popular and often quite approachable, so leveraging interest in science fiction may be a means for getting people excited about learning the scientific truths (or fallacies) underlying in what’s presented. Reading or watching science fiction is often what inspired people to become scientists, so why not use its popularity to have people learn more science?

But why Star Trek? Isn’t that about space travel in the far future? Do they really cover much genetics and evolution?

Part of the stated mission of the spaceship in many Star Trek series is “to seek out new life”. You may be surprised at how much genetics and evolution crop up across the series given this emphasis: for example, roughly one quarter of the episodes of the 2001-2005 series Star Trek Enterprise had the word “DNA” in the script, and an episode of the current series Star Trek: Discovery references results from a 2015 genome sequencing study. Importantly,Star Trek tries to explain observations in the context of science rather than falling back on magic or “the Force.” More generally, Star Trek offers a very large and mostly internally consistent volume from which to draw examples. Over 700 non-animated Star Trek episodes and 13 movies have aired so far (with one series continuing). That’s a lot of material, making it possible to find examples of almost anything you could want to explain! Of course, while what I’ve told you above is all true, a big added reason for me is that I just love Star Trek, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

How do you approach the science in your book?

The book follows the structure and topics of an introductory biology course at Duke University, where I teach. Each chapter is devoted to a broader idea, like “common ancestry of species” or “microevolutionary processes”. Within each chapter, I start sections by describing a scene from a Trek episode or movie that is relevant. The scene is described in enough detail that someone who hasn’t seen the episode gets the gist of what happened. I then talk about the underlying science that was described using real examples and analogies, and I try to mention recent research in these areas when appropriate. Finally, I return to the focal scene as well as other depictions in Star Trek and assess the accuracy of what was shown and/ or speculate on what may not have been shown (or suggest a tweak to what was shown) that would make it more precise. I follow this approach for several specific topics within each broader chapter idea to help the reader learn the underlying biology.

But how good is the science in Star Trek? Presumably it often gets things quite wrong in terms of biology, like showing hybrids between alien species. Don’t these errors make it hard to teach people your science if you’re using flawed material as your source of examples?

Trek definitely takes some liberties with the biology. There are also times when it gets things quite wrong. However, these errors often reflect broader misunderstandings the public (and sometimes scientists as well) have about genetics and evolution, and thus they provide teachable moments. For example, there’s an episode in which the cast are infected with a virus that caused them to “de-evolve” into various other life-forms (e.g., a spider), due to activating the introns within genes. This example is ludicrous, but it then opens the door to discussing misconceptions about evolution and ancestry and why they are wrong. For instance, humans share a common ancestor with spiders, but none of our direct ancestors were spiders. This is analogous to how we share a common ancestor with our second-cousins, but none of our second-cousins was a direct ancestor of ours. I discuss the evidence for evolution and common ancestry in some detail to try to combat these misconceptions. Later in the book, I also discuss what introns are and why they do not retain instructions for earlier evolutionary states.

How has your background in genetics and evolution informed this book?

While my intent is to cover some basics principles of evolution, one cannot understand evolution without a grasp of genetics, so I present a lot of genetics in the book as well. Genetics and genetics-related terms also seem to crop up in the public eye frequently: DNA sequencing, cloning, personal genotypes, epigenetics, CRISPR, etc. Even beyond explaining evolution, I am eager to have readers learn some basic genetics so they understand what is and what is not possible in real life.

If you wanted people to learn just one thing about evolution, what would it be, and is that one thing covered in your book?

The most basic evolutionary concept is the truth of all species on Earth sharing a common ancestor. We are related to other animals, to plants, and even to bacteria, and the evidence for these relationships is overwhelming. I cover this at some length in the book. However, another idea which I personally have found fascinating since college is how evolution by natural selection is a “mathematical inevitability” if a species has three simple features: heredity (offspring typically resemble parents more than random other individuals), variation (offspring vary in their traits), and differences in survival or reproduction associated with the varying traits. This concept, too, is covered in the book using examples from reproducing “nanites” in an episode of Star Trek.

I apologize— that’s TWO things about evolution rather than one, but there’s so much fascinating science in this field that it is hard to pick a single example. To quote the last line of Darwin’s most famous book, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

 

Mohamed Noor is a professor and former department chair of the Biology Department at Duke University. He previously wrote the book You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Announcing the trailer for On the Future by Martin Rees

Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various outcomes—good and bad—are possible. Yet our approach to the future is characterized by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric, and pessimism. In this short, exhilarating book, renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees argues that humanity’s prospects depend on our taking a very different approach to planning for tomorrow.

On the Future Prospects for Humanity, by Martin Rees from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, and has been Master of Trinity College and Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. His books include Our Cosmic Habitat (Princeton), Just Six Numbers, and Our Final Hour (published in the UK as Our Final Century). He lives in Cambridge, UK.

Mark Serreze on Brave New Arctic

In the 1990s, researchers in the Arctic noticed that floating summer sea ice had begun receding. This was accompanied by shifts in ocean circulation and unexpected changes in weather patterns throughout the world. The Arctic’s perennially frozen ground, known as permafrost, was warming, and treeless tundra was being overtaken by shrubs. What was going on? Brave New Arctic is Mark Serreze’s riveting firsthand account of how scientists from around the globe came together to find answers. A gripping scientific adventure story, Brave New Arctic shows how the Arctic’s extraordinary transformation serves as a harbinger of things to come if we fail to meet the challenge posed by a warming Earth.

Why should we care about what is going on in the Arctic?

The Arctic is raising a red flag. The region is warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole. The Arctic Ocean is quickly losing its summer sea ice cover, permafrost is thawing, glaciers are retreating, and the Greenland ice sheet is beginning to melt down. The Arctic is telling us that climate change is not something out there in some vague future. It is telling us that it is here and now, and in a big way. We long suspected that as the climate warms, the Arctic would be leading the way, and this is exactly what has happened.

There are a lot of books out there on the topic of climate change. What makes this one different and worth reading?

I wanted to get across how science is actually done. Scientists are trained to think like detectives, looking for evidence, tracking down clues, and playing on hunches. We work together to build knowledge, and stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. It a noble enterprise, but a very human one as well. We sometimes make mistakes (I’ve made a few doozies in my time) and get off the rails. Too often, science gets twisted up with politics. I tell it like it is, as a climate scientist who was there back when the Arctic was just beginning to stir, and both watched and participated in the story of the changing north.

You’ve hinted about how growing up in Maine got you interested in snow and ice. Can you tell us a little about this?

I grew up in coastal Maine in the 1960s and 1970s when there were some pretty impressive winters. Winter was my favorite season. I was way into daredevil sledding, and spent countless hours building the iciest, slickest track possible and modifying my sled for maximum speed. I developed a reputation for building tremendous snow forts with five or six rooms connected by tunnels. We’d would go crawling through the tunnels at night and light candles in each room. Then there was the simple primal joy of watching a big Nor’easter snowstorm come through and grind commerce to halt. The craziest winter activity I got into with my sister Mary and friend Dave was riding ice floes on the Kennebunk River. I probably should have drowned several times over, but, in retrospect, I learned a lot about the behavior of floating ice. Now, this was all back in an era when most of us were free-range kids—my mom would say, “get out of the house, I don’t want to see you ‘til dinner.” So you made your own fun and it wasn’t always safe. But it prepared me very well for a career studying snow and ice.

It took you quite a few years to be convinced of a human role in climate change. Why so long?

As mentioned, scientists are detectives, and we are always weighing the evidence. For me, it was never a question of if we would eventually see the human imprint of climate change in the Arctic—the basic physics behind greenhouse warming had been understood as far back as the late 19th century. Rather, it was a question of whether the evidence was solid enough to say that the imprint had actually emerged. The challenge we were up against is that natural variability is quite strong in the Arctic, the system is very complex, and most of the climate records we had were rather short. By the late 1990s, it was clear that we were seeing big changes, but at least to me, a lot of it still looked like natural variability. It was around the year 2002 or 2003 that the evidence became so overwhelming that I had to turn. So, I was a fence sitter for a long time on the issue of climate change, but that is how science should work. We are trained to be skeptical.

What happened in the year 2007?  Can you summarize?   

In the early summer of 2007, sea ice extent was below average, but this didn’t really grab anyone’s attention. That quickly changed when ice started disappearing at a pace never seen before. Through July and August, it seemed that the entire Arctic sea ice community was watching the daily satellite images with a growing sense of awe and foreboding. Huge chunks of the ice were getting eaten away. By the middle of September, when it was all over, the old record low for sea ice hadn’t just been beaten, it had been blown away. There was no longer any doubt that a Brave New Arctic was upon us. Arctic climate science was never really the same after that.

We keep hearing about how science tends to be a male-dominated field. But the impression that one gets from your book is that this isn’t really the case in climate research. Can you comment?

I don’t know what the actual numbers look like in climate science versus, say, computer science, but in my experience,  when it comes climate research, nobody really cares about your gender. What’s important is what you know and what you can contribute. What you do see, certainly, is more female graduate students now coming through the system in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics).

Are you frustrated by the general inaction, at least in the United States, to deal with climate change? 

I’m constantly amazed that we don’t take the issue of climate change more seriously in this country. We are adding greenhouse gases to the air. The climate is warming as a result. The physics are well understood. Just as expected, the Arctic is leading the way. Sure, there are uncertainties regarding just how warm it well get,  how much sea level will rise, and changes in extreme events, but we know plenty about what is happening and where we are headed. The costs of inaction are going to far outweigh the costs of addressing this issue.

Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Martin Rees: Stephen Hawking — An Appreciation

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But, amazingly, he lived on to the age of 76. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He become one of the most famous scientists  in the world—acclaimed  as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physics, for his best-selling books about space, time, and the cosmos, and for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given, back in 1964 when Stephen received his ‘death sentence,’ against witnessing this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement sustained for more than 50 years. Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space, and time.

Stephen went to school in St Albans, near London, and then to Oxford University. He was, by all accounts, a ‘laid back’ undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first class degree in physics, and an ‘entry ticket’ to a research career in Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. But in other respects fortune had favored him. He married a family friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children, Robert, Lucy, and Tim.

The 1960s were an exciting period in astronomy and cosmology: this was the decade when evidence began to emerge for black holes and the big bang. In Cambridge, Stephen  joined a lively research group. It was headed by Dennis Sciama, an enthusiastic and effective mentor who urged him to focus on the new mathematical concepts being developed by Roger Penrose, then at London University, which were initiating a renaissance in the study of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Stephen mastered Penrose’s techniques and quickly came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea),   along with new arguments that our universe had expanded from a ‘big bang.’ The latter work was done jointly with George Ellis, another of Sciama’s students, with whom Stephen wrote a monograph entitled The Large-Scale Structure of Space-Time. Especially important was the realization that the area of a black hole’s horizon (the ‘one-way membranes’ that shroud the interior of black holes, and from within which nothing can escape) could never decrease. The analogy with entropy (a measure of disorder, that likewise can never decrease) was developed further by the late Israeli theorist Jacob Bekenstein. In the subsequent decades, the observational support for these ideas  has strengthened—most spectacularly with the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes.

Stephen was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32. He was by then so frail that most of us suspected that he could scale no further heights. But, for Stephen, this was still just the beginning. He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory—the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours—he couldn’t even to turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he came up with his best-ever idea—encapsulated in an equation that he said he wanted on his memorial stone.

The great advances in science generally involve  discovering a link between phenomena that seemed hitherto conceptually unconnected: for instance, Isaac Newton famously realized that the force making an apple fall was the same as the force that held the moon and planets in their orbits. Stephen’s ‘eureka moment’ revealed a profound and unexpected  link between gravity and quantum theory: he predicted that black holes would not be completely black, but would radiate in a characteristic way. Bekenstein’s concept that black holes had ‘entropy’ was more than just an analogy. This radiation is only significant for black holes much less massive than stars—and none of these have been found. However, ‘Hawking radiation’ had very deep implications for mathematical physics—indeed one of the main achievements of string theory has been to corroborate his idea. It is still the focus of theoretical interest—a topic of debate and controversy more than 40 years after his discovery. Indeed the Harvard theorist, Andrew Strominger (with whom Stephen recently collaborated) said that this paper had caused ‘more sleepless nights among theoretical physicists than any paper in history.’ The key issue is whether information that is seemingly lost when objects fall into a black hole is in principle recoverable from the radiation when it evaporates. If it is not, this violates a deeply believed general physical principle. In 2013 he was one of the early winners of the Breakthrough Prize, worth 3 million dollars, which was intended to recognize theoretical work.

Cambridge was Stephen’s base throughout his career, and he became a familiar figure navigating his wheelchair around the city’s streets. By the end of the 1970s, he had advanced to one of the most distinguished posts in the University—the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, once held by Newton himself. He held this chair with distinction for 30 years; but reached the retiring age in 2009 and thereafter held a special research professorship. He travelled widely: he was an especially frequent visitor at Caltech, in Pasadena, California; and at Texas A&M University. He continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe—addressing questions like ‘was our big bang the only one?’ He had a remarkable ability to figure things out in his head. But latterly he worked with students and colleagues who would write a formula on a blackboard; he would stare at it, and say whether he agreed with it, and perhaps what should come next.

In 1987, Stephen contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than 10 years since he could write, or even  use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards  one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.

But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesizer, with the androidal American accent that has since become his trademark. His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so even a sentence took several minutes. He learnt to economize with words. His comments were aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In his later years, he became too weak to control this machine effectively, even via facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication—to his immense frustration—became even slower.

At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book, which he’d hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, who were then of college age. On his recovery from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the US edition of   A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers made some errors (a picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. This was the first inkling that the book was destined for runaway success—four years on bestseller lists around the world.

The feature film The Theory of Everything (where he was superbly impersonated by Eddie Redmayne, in an Oscar-winning performance) portrayed  the human story behind his struggle. It surpassed most biopics in  representing the main characters so well that they themselves were happy with the portrayal (even though it understandably omitted and conflated key episodes in his scientific life). Even before this film, his life and work had featured in movies. In  an excellent TV docudrama made in 2004, he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch (In 2012 Cumberbatch spoke his words in a 4-part documentary The Grand Design made for the Discovery TV  Channel).

Why did he become such a ‘cult figure?’ The concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in (say) genetics rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably wouldn’t have achieved the same resonance with a worldwide public.

The Theory of Everything conveyed with sensitivity how the need for support (first from a succession of students, but later requiring a team of nurses) strained his marriage to breaking point, especially when augmented by the pressure of his growing celebrity. Jane’s book, on which the film is based chronicles the 25 years during which, with amazing dedication, she underpinned his family life and his career.

This is where the film ends. But it left us only half way through Stephen’s adult life. After the split with Jane, Stephen married, in 1995, Elaine Mason, who had been one of his nurses, and whose former husband had designed Stephen’s speech synthesizer. But this partnership broke up within a decade. He was sustained, then and thereafter, by a team of helpers and personal assistants, as well as his family. His daughter Lucy has written books for children with her father as coauthor. His later theories were described, and beautifully illustrated, in other books such as Our Universe in a Nutshell and The Grand Design. These weren’t  bought by quite as many people as his first book—but probably more readers got to the end of them.

The success of A Brief History of Time catapulted Stephen to international stardom. He  featured in numerous TV programs; his lectures filled the Albert Hall, and similar venues in the US and Japan. He  featured in Star Trek and The Simpsons, and in numerous TV documentaries, as well as advertisements. He lectured at Clinton’s White House; he was back there more recently when President Obama presented him with the US Medal of Freedom, a very rare honor for any foreigner—and of course just one of the many awards he accumulated over his career (including Companion of Honor from the UK). In the summer of 2012, he reached perhaps his largest-ever audience when he had a star role at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics.

His 60th birthday celebrations, in January 2002 , were a memorable occasion for all of us. Hundreds of leading scientists came from all over the world to honor and celebrate Stephen’s discoveries, and to spend a week discussing the latest theories on space, time, and the cosmos. But the celebrations weren’t just scientific—that wouldn’t have been Stephen’s style. Stephen was surrounded by his children and grandchildren; there was music and singing; there were ‘celebrities’ in attendance. And when the week’s events were all over, he celebrated with a trip in a hot air balloon.

It was amazing enough that Stephen reached the age of 60; few of us then thought that he would survive 16 more years. His 70th birthday was again marked by an international gathering of scientists in Cambridge, and also with some razzmatazz. So was his 75th birthday, though now shared by several million people via a livestream on the internet. He was in these last years plainly weakening. But he was still able to ‘deliver’ entertaining (and sometimes rather moving) lectures via his speech synthesizer and with the aid of skillfully prepared visuals.

Stephen continued, right until his last decade, to coauthor technical papers, and speak at premier international conferences—doubly remarkable in a subject where even healthy researchers tend to peak at an early age. Specially influential were his contributions to ‘cosmic inflation’—a theory that many believe describes the ultra-early phases of our expanding universe. A key issue is to understand the primordial seeds which eventually develop into galaxies. He proposed (as, independently, did the Russian theorist Viatcheslav Mukhanov) that these were quantum fluctuations—somewhat analogous to those involved in ‘Hawking radiation’ from black holes. He hosted an important meeting in 1982 where such ideas were thoroughly discussed. Subsequently, particularly with James Hartle and Thomas Hertog, he made further steps towards linking the two great theories of 20th century physics: the quantum theory of the microworld and Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time.

He continued  to be an inveterate traveller—despite attempts to curb this as his respiration weakened. This wasn’t just to lecture. For instance, on a visit to Canada he was undeterred by having to go two miles down a mine-shaft to visit an underground laboratory where famous and delicate experiments had been done. And on a later trip, only a last-minute health setback prevented him from going to the Galapagos. All these travels—and indeed his everyday working life—involved an entourage of assistants and nurses. His fame, and the allure of his public appearances, gave him the resources for  nursing care, and protected him against the ‘does he take sugar?’ type of indignity that the disabled often suffer.

Stephen was far from being the archetype unworldly or nerdish scientist—his personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. As well as his extensive travels, he enjoyed  trips to theatre or opera. He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions. However, a downside of his iconic status was that that his comments attracted exaggerated attention even on topics where he had  no special expertise—for instance philosophy, or the dangers from aliens or from intelligent machines. And he was sometimes involved in media events where his ‘script’ was written by the promoters of causes about which he may have been ambivalent.

But there was absolutely no gainsaying his lifelong commitment to campaigns for the disabled, and (just in the last few months) in support of the NHS—to which he acknowledged he owed so much. He was always, at the personal level, sensitive to the misfortunes of others. He recorded  that, when in hospital soon after his illness was first diagnosed, his depression was lifted when he compared his lot with a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukemia. And he was firmly aligned with other political campaigns and causes. When he visited Israel, he insisted on going also to the West Bank. Newspapers in 2006 showed remarkable pictures of him, in his wheelchair, surrounded  by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah.

Even more astonishing are the pictures of him ‘floating’ in the NASA aircraft  (the ‘vomit comet’) that allows passengers to experience weightlessness—he was manifestly overjoyed at escaping, albeit briefly, the clutches of the gravitational force he’d studied for decades and which had so cruelly imprisoned his body.

Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 22. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and his  expectations dropped to zero. He himself said that everything that happened since then was a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds—a manifestation of amazing will-power and determination.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, a former director of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy and author, most recently, of the bestselling Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. His forthcoming book, On the Future, will be available in October 2018.

Presenting the trailer for Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

This entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority—sometimes risking excommunication, prison, and even death—to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form—smart, charming, and often funny. A brilliant account of one of the most brilliant periods in philosophy, Heretics! is the story of how a group of brave thinkers used reason and evidence to triumph over the authority of religion, royalty, and antiquity. Watch the trailer here:

 

Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler & Ben Nadler from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

HereticsSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics.

Welcome to the Universe microsite receives a Webby

We’re pleased to announce that the accompanying microsite to Welcome to the Universe by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott has won a People’s Choice Webby in the Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics category. Congratulations to Eastern Standard, the web designer, on a beautifully designed site.

Winning a Webby is especially gratifying because it honors how much fun we had making the site. We knew we wanted an unconventional approach that would mirror both the complexity and accessibility of the book it was meant to promote. Our wonderful in-house team and creative partners, Eastern Standard took on this challenge, and we are so happy with the results.
—Maria Lindenfeldar, Creative Director, Princeton University Press 

Creating this microsite was a wonderful experiment for us at Princeton University Press.  We wanted to explore how we, as a publisher, could present one of our major books to the public in a compelling way in the digital environment.  Ideally, we had a vision of creating a simple site with intuitive navigation that would give readers an inviting mini-tour through the topics of the book, Welcome to the Universe, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, and Richard Gott.  The animation was meant to be subtle, but meaningful, and to gently encourage user interaction, so that the focus would always remain immersing the reader in the content of the book – what we feel is the most interesting part!  We were very happy with how it turned out and now all the more thrilled and honored that the site was chosen for a Webby!
—Ingrid Gnerlich, Science Publisher, Princeton University Press

Everyone’s favorite genius takes the spotlight

Along with Einstein fans everywhere, we’re fairly excited to binge-watch National Geographic’s upcoming series, “Genius”, premiering Tuesday, April 25. The first episode shows a young Einstein (Johnny Flynn), poring over the nature of time, a concept well covered in our An Einstein Encyclopedia along with most any other topic that could interest an Einstein devotee, from fame, to family, to politics, to myths and misconceptions. In Genius, prepare to see a show-down between a feisty young Einstein and a particularly rigid teacher. Engrossing to watch—and bound to leave viewers wanting more. Not to worry: “Teachers, education and schools attended” are covered in depth in the Encyclopedia, as are “Rivals”.

Episode 2 of Genius promises to show Einstein embarking, after much head-butting, on a love affair with the determined Mileva Maric. Often remembered as the lone, eccentric, Princeton-based thinker, Einstein’s youthful relationship with Maric sometimes comes as a surprise even to Einstein fans. And yet in 1903, a young Albert Einstein married his confidante despite the objections of his parents. Her influence on his most creative years has given rise to much discussion—but theirs was only one of several romantic interests over the course of Einstein’s life that competed with his passion for physics. Einstein’s love life has been the subject of intense speculation over the years, but don’t believe everything you hear: “Romantic Interests: Actual, Probable, and Possible”, all included in the Encyclopedia, won’t leave you guessing.

Mileva Maric, first wife of Albert Einstein

 An Einstein Encyclopedia is the single most complete guide to Einstein’s life, perfect for browsing and research alike. Written by three leading Einstein scholars who draw on their combined wealth of expertise gained during their work on the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, this accessible reference features more than one hundred entries and is divided into three parts covering the personal, scientific, and public spheres of Einstein’s life.

With science celebrated far and wide along with Earth Day this past weekend, what better time to get your dose of genius and #ReadUp.

 

 

Celebration of Science: A reading list

This Earth Day 2017, Princeton University Press is celebrating science in all its forms. From ecology to psychology, astronomy to earth sciences, we are proud to publish books at the highest standards of scholarship, bringing the best work of scientists to a global audience. We all benefit when scientists are given the space to conduct their research and push the boundaries of the human store of knowledge further. Read on for a list of essential reading from some of the esteemed scientists who have published with Princeton University Press.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Abraham Flexner and Robbert Dijkgraaf

Use

The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll

Carroll

Honeybee Democracy
Thomas D. Seeley

Seeley

Silent Sparks
Sara Lewis

Lewis

Where the River Flows
Sean W. Fleming

Fleming

How to Clone a Mammoth
Beth Shapiro

Shapiro

The Future of the Brain
Gary Marcus & Jeremy Freeman

Brain

Searching for the Oldest Stars
Anna Frebel

Frebel

Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

Climate

Welcome to the Universe
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott

Universe

The New Ecology
Oswald J. Schmitz

Schmitz

A peek inside The Calculus of Happiness

What’s the best diet for overall health and weight management? How can we change our finances to retire earlier? How can we maximize our chances of finding our soul mate? In The Calculus of Happiness, Oscar Fernandez shows us that math yields powerful insights into health, wealth, and love. Moreover, the important formulas are linked to a dozen free online interactive calculators on the book’s website, allowing one to personalize the equations. A nutrition, personal finance, and relationship how-to guide all in one, The Calculus of Happiness invites you to discover how empowering mathematics can be. Check out the trailer to learn more:

The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love, Oscar E. Fernandez from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

FernandezOscar E. Fernandez is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College and the author of Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us. He also writes about mathematics for the Huffington Post and on his website, surroundedbymath.com.

Welcome to the Universe microsite nominated for a Webby

We’re thrilled to announce that the microsite for Welcome to the Universe by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott, designed by Eastern Standard, has been nominated for a Webby in the Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics category. Be sure to check it out and vote for the best of the internet!

webby

 

Just in time for Pi Day, presenting The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips. This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director, in which he shows that Flexner’s defense of the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” may be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Watch the trailer to learn more:

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.