Thursday, July 22, 2004

Stephen Hawking's Losing Bet

Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, conceded a scientific bet placed with a physicist at MIT.  The MIT physicist, it seems, bet that Hawking was wrong in his theory that a black whole in space destroys any matter that it consumes.  Hawking is conceding the bet after working out an alternative theory to his original theory that concedes matter can be released from a black whole, and also contradicts his earlier theory, beloved of science fiction fans, that one could actually travel to another universe through a black whole.

That story got me thinking.  Scientists are usually so sure about their own theories that they rarely, if ever, generate the theory that supplants their own.  Instead, they tend to lock in to their conception of the problem, and have difficulty thinking about it critically.  This explains the willingness of Hawking to place a bet against a prominent MIT physicist who was skeptical.  Clearly that physicist's skepticism wasn't enough to prod Hawking back to the drawing board to rethink his theory, otherwise why would he have placed the bet?  So what drew him back?

I have a theory on that, and it goes back to a photograph I saw long ago.  At the time, as the following archived article reveals, I mocked the photograph.  But now I think it explains why Hawking came to doubt his own theory.  Here it is:

I recently had the pleasure of taking a tour of the West Wing of the White House.  I suppose I was one of the lucky little people in the 1990s to catch glimpses of  the location of so many decisions of import in the history of our nation without forking over thousands of cash sourced from the Chinese military to the Democratic National Committee.  (Though my tight pockets may explain why I did not get any coffee.)  The halls were filled with pictures of our president, first lady, and vice president, each warming the hearts of people the world over with their empathetic personalities.  My tour mates and I were told that the president has his own photographical staff that is responsible for taking pictures of him wherever he treads, with the obvious exception of the closet that adjoins the oval office (however, maybe Starr just failed to consider the possibility that Clinton had it all videotaped, and maybe the president was being truthful when he said that he and that women were never alone together).  It might be the case that most of the presidents have generally had the same, but I suspect none before have considered it one of the great perks of the presidency.
My purpose in this article is not to beat up on Bill Clinton, lest I, for shame, be accused of being a Clinton-hater (to which the best response is simply: “What’s to like about him?”).   Instead I turn my attention to his heir apparent, Algore.  In the course of our tour, more than any other attraction that we were privy to, there was one picture prominently displayed in the hallways of the West Wing that particularly caught my attention.  In contrast to most of the pictures, it was in black and white rather than color, as if to display the gravity of the discussion taking place among its subjects.  It pictures Al Gore standing in front of an easel that holds a large pad of paper, pointing toward an equation displayed on the sheet, and looking at Stephen Hawking, who is trying earnestly to keep up with the lightning quick lecture being delivered by Algore.  In the background, there are four or five of Gore’s lackies staring on with rapt attention, trying their best to feign that the conversation taking place is way over their Ivy-league educated heads.  More striking than the obvious staging of what is intended to come across as a candid picture is the equation that Algore is trying to pound into the obtuse head of Stephen Hawking.  For it is the equation that either gives away the lie of the picture or displays Algore’s ego in an all-too perfect manner.  The equation – “x/y”.   That’s it, right there!  Apparently it requires explaining to Stephen Hawking.  
If you take the view that the photo was purely staged, can you not picture Algore choosing that equation himself in haste as something he is sure any lowly peon touring the halls of the West Wing would never understand?  If you can’t, it’s only because you have never watched him give a speech, where the would-be philosopher king Gore’s typical gameplan is to explain very complex minutae to you, the unwashed, in a style reminiscent of your kindergarten teacher.   If the photo was in fact staged, what it clearly shows is an arrogant fraud.  And if it wasn’t staged, what on earth does Algore think that he can explain to Stephen Hawking with an equation as simple as x/y?  Gore: “Now, Stephen, if we let x represent the size of my IQ, and y represent the number of steps that you will take in the remainder of your life, then the equation tends toward infinity, which is exactly what my research shows will happen to global temperatures if I cannot convince the ignorant masses that the Kyoto accords must be signed in order to limit greenhouse gases.”  So either he is a fraud with a mild amount of cynicism and arrogance, or he is entirely sincere with an arrogance that knows no equal (OK, maybe Clinton displays equal arrogance).   I’m not sure which is the case, but I know that neither makes me very comfortable.
How this guy has gotten the reputation for being so intelligent is beyond me.  He has certainly received kid-glove treatment from the press as VP in comparison to Dan Quayle, as he has had many gaffes along the lines of misspelling potatoe (I learned to spell from members of the NEA).  Included among them are pointing out that a photograph of the earth pictures our planet upside down.  I suppose his penchant for environmental issues gives him the ill-deserved aura of understanding the complexities of nature.  But even if his “sky is falling” environmentalism is entirely backed up by all of the leading scientists in the field (it is not), it is entirely legitimate for voters to ask themselves whether they’d prefer to slowly burn to death in a soup of greenhouse gases or be saved from the coming inferno at the cost of having to listen to Algore talk to them like they are kindergarten students for the next eight years?  Before casting a vote for this guy, I suggest you watch a speech he is delivering while sitting in scalding hot water so that you can make a truly informed decision. 
Equally undeserved is Gore’s reputation as a man who, despite his closeness with Clinton, has managed to remain untainted by his boss.  If we compartmentalize his sexual life away from his political, of course this claim is true, but other than Larry Flynt and Hugh Heffner, of whom could we say that it is not?  The moral preening and crocodile tears empathy of Clinton for the “common” man, though curtailed somewhat in recent months (though by no means entirely), finds its logical successor in Algore.  Can you imagine a politician courting the votes of tobacco farmers in an earlier run at the presidency by signalling himself out as probably the only candidate to actually farm tobacco, while in a later campaign shedding tears for his late sister at the 1996 Democrat’s National Convention because she died of lung cancer, at the evil hands of tobacco companies?  It sounds like classic Clinton, but is in fact Algore.  In the 1992 Convention, he was able to convert a horrible accident, wherein his son was run over by a car, into a speech that scored among the voters, and established Algore as just like us, despite being born with the silver spoon in his mouth.  And thereby proving that there are silver linings, for him at least, to any tragedy that befalls members of his family.  His speeches call to mind the old cartoon where a fat guy and a thin guy, stranded on a desert island, begin to hallucinate from hunger and exposure, and see each other as a hot dog and a hamburger.  I wonder if his close relatives ever get the feeling when he looks at them that he is envisioning them as victims of gun manufacturers, environmental polluters, tobacco companies, or other groups perceived as evil and non-descript.
The press has reported rumblings from among his campaign staff that they are all worried, right up to Gore himself, that Clinton will get us mired in Kosovo, and thereby jeopardize Gore’s election chances.  And there is no doubt in my mind that Gore would consider this the greatest tragedy of Kosovo.  In this Gore is the political soul mate of Bill Clinton.  If either can do a service to this country by doing a service for themselves, then so much the better in their eyes.  But if these two goals ever conflict, as they have many times during Clinton’s presidency (not to mention his draft dodging), we can take Gore’s callous concerns as an indication that, as with Clinton, he will do what is best for himself.  It would be ironic if Clinton, whose primary concern now is historical reputation rather than political survival, pursues a course in Kosovo toward that end, and in so doing, hurts Gore’s chances.  But for you liberals out there – do not despair – with enough contributions from Buddhist monks and the Chinese military, Algore shall overcome (and then he can deal with burning issues like campaign finance reform to remove the corruption from government).


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