Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hawking's Star Power at UC-Berkeley

Stephen Hawking can still draw a sizable crowd. His public lecture this past Tuesday night at UC-Berkeley was sold out (of course).

However, if your read carefully the news report, there's something rather odd, and may even be troubling. One would expect that with such popularity, people are interested in hearing what Hawking has to say, and his message. However, this may not be true.

Nearly 3,000 people have paid money to see Hawking and hundreds more couldn't get tickets, making the appearance a bona fide happening on a campus where the Internet and the ever-growing demands of student life have made mass events less frequent.

Yet, in the very next part of the report, we get this:

But in contrast to the popularity of Hawking's lecture, less impressive was the response to invitations academic officials extended to freshmen to discuss the cosmologist's latest book with top professors.

Thirty-three sessions were held as mini-seminars for first-year students to grapple with Hawking's latest book, "A Briefer History of Time." All freshmen in the College of Letters and Science were sent copies of the slim hardback over the winter break and asked to read it and take part in discussions in the spring before attending Hawking's lecture.

Some of the university's most decorated faculty volunteered to lead the talks, including physics Nobel Laureate George Smoot and astronomer Alex Filippenko, winner of numerous campus and national teaching awards and the top vote-getter in students' reviews of their professors.

But Smoot taught a half-empty room of nine students.

"He's a Nobel laureate," said a dismayed Alix Schwartz, director of academics for the undergraduate division of the College of Letters and Science, "and half the students who signed up didn't show up."

What does that tell you?

We live in a "celebrity-driven" society, and I'm sure physics isn't immune by that. People didn't show up to Hawking's lectures to listen to what he has to say. They just want to see him. He could probably draw the same crowd if he does nothing but recites the phone book. That would be too bad, because obviously in this case, his celebrity has overshadowed the physics message that he does. People do not show the same level interest in his physics as they do with Stephen Hawking the person. As a physicist, if your work is no longer the main focus, then you lose that identity and you are now just like any other "celebrity".

The irony in this whole thing is that, the discussion of Hawking's book and work reveals more about Hawking than attending any of his public lectures. The students who skipped these discussion sessions did not know what they were missing.


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