LAS VEGAS (CBS Las Vegas) — A scientist is facing criticism for calling renowned physicist Stephen Hawking a “brain in a vat.”
Helene Mialet, an anthropologist at University of California-Berkeley, wrote an op-ed for Wired in which she described how she has studied Hawking for years, while living and breathing the “Hawking tribe.”
“What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies,” Mialet wrote.
At one point, she compared Hawking to Darth Vader.
“Since being afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease) almost 50 years ago, his muscles have stopped working, though his mind and senses remain unaffected. In some ways Hawking is, to borrow from Obi-Wan referring to Darth Vader, ‘more machine now than man,’ she wrote.
Chris Whitehouse, trustee at the Right To Life Charitable Trust, told The Daily Mail that Mialet’s comments were out of line.
“I disagree passionately and regularly with many of the views that Professor Stephen Hawkins expresses, but I would die for his right to express them,” Whitehouse said to the Mail. “I have nothing but the greatest respect for this incredible man and what he has achieved. To denigrate him for his disability and to belittle his accomplishments is to denigrate human life itself.”
Commenters of the story also took issue with what she wrote.
“I have the impression the author is trying too hard to resolve the notion of individual identity with social dependence,” Ben Bogart wrote. “I don’t think the social situation in which Hawking works is really different than any other theoretical physicist at that level of career.”
Another person said that Mialet was “twisted and evil.”
Mialet concluded in her op-ed that Hawking’s disability will show the world how everyone will work one day.
“Hawking’s persona, his disability, and his embodied network thus becomes a window on our machines, the nature of work, and even our representation of scientific heroes,” she said. “Popular media shows us that Hawking is a pure, isolated, once-in-a-lifetime genius; ethnographic analysis shows us that Hawking is not that different from other scientists even though he has a disability. In fact, it’s precisely because of his disability that we get to see how all scientists work … and how the entire world will work one day.”
Hawking turned 71 on Jan. 8.