The Lede, Wednesday, March 14, 2018
By David Royse
Farewell, Stephen Hawking, who died early this morning at 76.
It’s Pi Day.
It’s also the birthday of Albert Einstein.
That’s a weirdly coincidental math-physics trifecta. (I also saw several mentions on Twitter this morning noting that Hawking had actually been born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo. So I’m re-examining my whole understanding of some things this morning.)
It’s also one month since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. School kids in districts around the country, many with the blessings of local administrators, planned to walk out of classes today for 17 minutes in remembrance, and honor of the 17 killed.
Stephen Hawking Remembered
Hawking’s genius as a theoretical physicist is difficult for most of us to assess because it’s difficult for many of us to understand. I know a few soundbites – radiation can escape black holes, singularities at the center of black holes, the beginning of the universe was related to the explosion of one of these singularities. But how it all actually works and what it means, and whether I should believe it or not, that’s all a bit above my mental pay grade. And the same for many non-physicists.
But the genius of Hawking was, for us non-physicists, similar to that of Einstein. It was a genius of celebrity that broadened the appeal of theoretical science.
Most scientists, even the most celebrated in their fields, work in total obscurity as far as the wider world is concerned. Think about every year when the Nobel prizes are awarded, and the media crow about some “stunning breakthrough” for which someone is being awarded the prize. You and I have often never, ever heard of the person, or their work.
Not so, for Hawking. Hawking seemed to understand that there was some value in trying to expose the wider world to some of the ideas of theoretical cosmology and physics. Until recently, he and Carl Sagin were the only two thinkers at that level who seemed to care about that idea. (It’s now, I think thanks in part to Hawking, becoming a little more common: think of a guy like Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
And, of course, he wrote a book that attempted to popularly explain some of the mysteries of the cosmos, A Brief History of Time, which sold more than 10 million copies. Recognizing later that even that was a little dense and not accessible enough to a general audience, he wrote an easier to understand version, A Briefer History of Time, which was aimed entirely at non-scientists.
But he also understood that to draw attention and interest toward the big questions of life and the universe, he had to get public attention – and he embraced the public culture, even in its seemingly “less intellectual” forms.
Hawking once noted that, given the public’s general lack of interest in physics, he was probably best known as a character on The Simpsons. The animated version of Hawking was in four Simpsons episodes, including one in which he went to Springfield to tell people that their idea for a Utopia was more of a Fruitopia. He allowed his likeness to be used in other animated shows, like Futurama, and appeared on TV sitcoms, gave speeches, despite his difficulty communicating, and welcomed media attention.
And he cooperated with Hollywood filmmakers when they made the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything, about Hawking and his wife Jane, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and for which Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor award for playing Hawking.
“Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, said in The New York Times’ Hawking obituary this morning. That was the lead quote.
That was, I think for most of us, the genius of Hawking.
In his brief history in time, he took his mind to the outer reaches of human understanding of the cosmos. But unlike many, if not most, of his colleagues, he tried to take us along with him.
RISING FROM THE RUST: RE-IMAGINING MANSFIELD
When you think of the South By Southwest Conference (SXSW), you might think of all the Silicon Valley bros (see the crypto item below) all getting together for whatever the latest trendy drink is and talking about how cool Elon Musk is and Ubering to a meeting with a guy who knows a guy who has an idea for an app.
But a relatively small, hyperlocal news site from the Mansfield, Ohio area is there with 15 people from Mansfield and surrounding Richland County, hitting up sessions and looking for ideas they can take back to help make Mansfield – a rust belt town between Columbus and Cleveland – better. They’re blogging about it. They’re looking into and writing about startups and tech, city planning, food and entertainment, the workplace and ideas on social impact.
The project is part of the Rising from the Rust project, a year-long effort to document “the community’s turn from its manufacturing past to its job market of the future.”
Richland Source publisher Jay Allred says the conference is a place where it becomes clear that things that may not seem possible are being done, and therefore could be done elsewhere. It’s a leveling-up that communities like Mansfield can benefit from, a way of rising above some of the defeatism that sometimes gets entrenched in communities that have been down on their luck, or just don’t make the glossy mags’ Best Places to Live and Work issues.
“What I mean by that is SXSW can explode mental barriers that tell me “Jay, that’s not possible,” or “Jay, we’re not capable of that for these 12 very good reasons.” Suddenly, whatever skills and talents I have or can recruit from others become exactly the ones needed to solve a problem.
“SXSW changes the internal conversation for me. Often it does so when I end up in a smallish room — as I did yesterday — for a session with Valerie Jarrett, Belinda Johnson, Marne Levine, and Evan Ryan.Collectively, these women lead companies with market capitalizations of over $130 billion and/or worked in the West Wing of the White House. That’s a lot of horsepower, and they are there to share it with… me. In that short window of time, we’re just people running organizations and trying to solve problems. The playing field is level.”
More communities should emulate what Mansfield is doing here and think big, aspire big. It may not mean going to SXSW, necessarily, but psychically putting themselves in the same rooms with the Austins, Pittsburghs, and Huntsvilles is a good start. More people should, too.
What Else is Going On At SXSW
BLOCKCHAIN WINS SXSW
Kerry Flynn writing at Mashable:
SXSW of yesteryear was dominated by mobile apps. It’s where Twitter, Foursquare, and Meerkat had their viral moments. In 2018, the SXSW hype bubbled around blockchain with conversations on the best whitepapers, worst ICO scams, and cutest cryptokitties. More than ever before, blockchain-themed discussions were hosted throughout the annual conference. There were at least 38 official panels, along with side events run by software company Consensys, the Token Agency, and The Founders Organization’s Initial Taco Offering.
YOUTUBE CEO: PLAN TO USE ‘INFORMATION CUES’ TO BATTLE HOAXES
Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki talked at SXSW about how Youtube plans to debunk hoax videos. Engadget
NOTES FROM THE AGE OF DISRUPTION:
Is facing a lawsuit from disability advocates over access. San Francisco Chronicle
Wants to make video games look a lot more realistic. TechCrunch
As always, I welcome your thoughts. @daveroyse on Twitter or email@example.com