stephen hawking

Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

I woke up this morning to the news that legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had passed away.


Hawking held an undoubtably important place in modern culture. Through his improbable battle with ALS (he was diagnosed at 21 and given two years to live) he became uniquely recognizable. "That guy in the wheelchair" brought the arcane and abstract world of cosmology to a wider audience.

I was first exposed to him in the season six finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I would have been about eight years old.

L to R, Albert Einstein, Data, Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton... go figure.

L to R, Albert Einstein, Data, Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton... go figure.

My family happened to have a copy of his New York Times bestseller, A Brief History of Time, on the shelf. It was one of those books that lots of people bought but few actually read. I tried to read it and it wasn't that difficult. That book contained a lot of important lessons for a young person!

The idea that runs through the book is that the universe is explicable. Not necessarily explainED but explicABLE. (At that point our current best estimate for the age of the universe, 13.8 billion years, was still about a decade away.) While the world might be complicated, the explanations aren't forever hidden over the horizon of human knowledge. Sometimes, we actually have too many possible explanations and are waiting for a way to tell between them. He also spent most of his time talking about Black Holes and the beginning of the universe; pretty cool stuff. Once you start thinking in those terms, it's hard to turn back. 

More recently, he has made guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory and had an Oscar nominated feature film about his early life on his way to his PhD, The Theory of Everything. So I hope I'm not the last generation to be inspired by his life and work.

Deception on The Infinite Monkey Cage

There is a delightful BBC Radio Podcast called The Infinite Monkey Cage, with theme song by Eric Idle and hosted by Robert Ince and Brian Cox (the guy Stephen Hawking pushed into the river on the Monty Python reunion show.)

This is the episode from January 19, 2015, entitled Deception. It's available on iTunes or from the BBC.

No one does the panel discussion as well as the Brits and it's a very interesting discussion. And includes a magician and respected academic, Richard Wiseman.

One of the most intriguing things they mention, which I don't hear discussed very often, is that we are not very good at knowing when we are being deceived. There is a natural tendency to both accept things at face value, and to assume others will accept things at face value.

It also turns out that many of the "tricks" you are supposed to be able to use to detect deceptions (facial ticks and other visual cues) don't really work.

I guest listener be warned.

Taking the Lord's name in vain

I posted this recently on a private forum for secularists, heathens and infidels. The conversation it sparked was interesting, but that was for a slightly different crowd of like minded people. As a bit of personal background, the areas where I have the most training are magic and mathematics. Both are disciplines where the language where ideas are expressed are extremely important. A few words difference can have a huge impact and so I often waste a lot of energy trying to pick exactly the right words to use.

"In my experience, if you cannot say what you mean, you can never mean what you say. The details are everything."

-J.M. Straczynski

Do you make an effort to change the way you speak because you’re gay and/or an atheist.

I’m thinking of things like how whenever Michael Shermer mentions god, he often refers to ‘she’ or ‘her’ and it’s always followed by this little giggle as people are confused and amused by the incongruity.

I’m also thinking of swear words. There are three levels. At the highest are the insulting racial slurs (N-word and the like), followed by the sexual/scatological (asshole, shithead, cocksucker, fuck, cunt, these lists are fun to make) and at the lowest end are the religious ones (god damn, what in god’s name, oh god, oh hell, etc).

Pretty much no one uses the first kind, and the second kind is still hard to get away with in most settings. So in mixed company, the religious ones are the closest thing you can get to a good curse word.

So my question to all of you is, since you don’t believe in god hell or damnation, what do you use for a good swear word in mixed company?

I worry sometimes that if you use the words, you’re tacitly endorsing their validity. Stephen Hawking (happy birthday) and Albert Einstein both used phrases involving god and it has come back to bite them as people have tried to quote it out of context to imply that they must believe in god. Hitchens used to say he used the phrase “god knows” to mean “nobody knows” but who knows what percentage of his audience actually knew that.

When I was in my late teens, I used to run a kids day camp, so I was really, really good at avoiding all, except for maybe the odd “hell” or “damn”. For my own amusement I tried the Bugs Bunny type ones for a while (fiddlesticks, suffering succotash) and the one from Phil the Prince of Insufficient Light (“I Darn you to Heck”). Then when I got a little older, I tried to replace religious curses with scientific ones (“what in Feynman’s name”, “for the love of Darwin”) which I still do from time to time.

Depending on how confident I feel, I might even interject when someone uses one of the little religious curses, “who is this god person you’re talking about?” My favourite is if someone says cocksucker, to add “excuse me, some people do that for fun.”

There are lots of other little places where religious phrases sneak into language, like saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. Wondering, if anyone else notices or cares or what you try to do about it.