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Science vs. the paparazzi: string theory in Beijing

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The opening ceremony of the Strings 2006 conference on 19 June, held in the Great Hall of the People, kicked off several days worth of fevered reporting. Since no one's really interested in string theory, the media has focused on Stephen Hawking, whose "rock star status" means that his pronouncements on Chinese women and Beijing's traffic (he thinks there are too many cars, reports today's Mirror) earn front-page stories in the papers.

Danwei reader Michael Dundas wrangled a pass to the opening ceremony from a scholar at the Academy of Sciences who, having attended such conferences in the past, was desperate to unload his tickets to such a boring event. Here's his impression of the crowd's reaction to Hawking and those other physics guys:

Of the 9,700 seats in the auditorium, only about 500 were snapped up by conference participants. The rest were populated by thousands of Beijing high school and college students bussed in from around the city.

One drawback for this initially interested audience was that the presentations lacked translation. First to the podium was David Gross, 2004 Nobel Prize winner in physics for elucidating the mechanisms by which the strong nuclear force exerts its power. Despite his crisp diction and colorful slides, after about 30 minutes or so, more than a third of the crowd was fast asleep.

Thinking he had an ace in the hole, the second speaker, Harvard Physics professor Andrew Strominger came on strong, with no fewer than seven full opening sentences in Chinese. The crowd went wild. But after the dust settled it became apparent that the rest of the speech would be delivered in English and again, about 20 minutes later, heads began to nod.

But then something miraculous happened. When Stephen Hawking was finally introduced, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Faye Wong, Jay Chow, or any number of Korean boy bands had taken the stage. Many students leapt from their chairs and rushed to the front of the auditorium. Despite repeated warnings from chairperson Dr. Chengtong Qiu to abstain from using flash photography, the crowd continued to take pictures of Hawking as he sat, larger than life, in the middle of the giant stage.

When the crowd had dispersed, it took professor Hawking several minutes to begin his remarks. A rare silence fell over the crowd for what seemed an eternity. Then, without warning, that trademark robotic voice broke the silence: "Can you hear me?" The audience erupted with shrieks and applause. For the next 40 minutes Hawking delivered his speech with slides in both English and Chinese and not a single eye closed.

Reports of those flashbulbs caught the attention of Fudan University professor Ge Jianxiong, who blasts the paparazzi-style behavior of the crowd in an editorial titled, "Scholarship, Popular Science, or a Celebrity Appearance?" in today's The Beijing News:

Qiu Chengtong shouted in English to tell everyone not to take pictures, and not to use flashes. About three minutes after the warning, the crowd still had not quieted down. He switched to Chinese: "Please leave immediately; flashes will be inconvenient for Professor Hawking!" This lasted for a few more minutes but still had no effect. Qiu Chengtong was furious, and shouted, "Hong Kong reporters are more courteous than you! Please return to your seats immediately, or we'll have to call security!" At this, the crowd finally began to gradually quiet down. (Oriental Morning Post, 20 June)

I can't help but recall the evening of 15 July, 1998, and the setting in which I encountered Hawking at Cambridge. This was during his daily "walk" time; the paths surrounding the River Cam were busy and peaceful - this was the best time of day in the best time of year. He sat in his electric wheelchair and moved about slowly; the old attending nurse followed him but did not draw near. Acquaintances and strangers walked in their own direction at their own speed, and tourists were no different, at the most, their eyes betraying a look of friendly reverence, even though they all knew he was the renowned Hawking. My hand had involuntarily gripped my camera, but I never had the courage to take it out. I watched him pass by me, and followed his retreating form until it vanished near the River Cam's edge.

Here, I would like to ask, were those several hundred photographers all journalists? If they were, what do their media organizations have to do with Hawking, physics, or string theory? Are their readers or audience interested in academics? Or perhaps it's possible that their reports on Hawking are like Faye Wong having a daughter or the appearance of a Super Girl? Perhaps they've all become paparazzi, and don't understand the fundamental professional ethics of journalism, don't understand that they ought to respect an internationally-renowned scientist, a rarely seen highly disabled person, that they fail to provide him with even basic protection! Were those photographers all reporters? Were there perhaps some busybodies, fans, or groupies for whom the lecture was just an excuse? Qiu Chengtong's anger is understandable, but had the organizers not made suitable preparations beforehand? For example, limiting the use of video recorders? From the way some positive reports tell it, was this unprecedented spectacle perhaps just what the conference organizers wanted?

There are other things I don't understand. String theory isn't something that everyone can understand, and it's not something that it is essential to popularize. Even though Hawking as an individual has a certain charm, his investigations are at the forefront of advanced science, where the risks are great and the questions are numerous - not the ideal material for popularizing science. If this was done purely to let the public gaze with reverence upon Hawking's form, or to satisfy the need for a popular science event, then there was absolutely no need to inconvenience him and his large retinue by having them make the trek out here. This waste of his time and effort is appropriate for neither the cause of scientific progress or the care of Hawking.

If this was a private tour on the part of Hawking, then by all means let him have a relaxed, free atmosphere in which to conduct it. This kind of academic conference will never find any sort of commercial sponsorship, so why set up such a large venue and do it on such a large scale? Will the results demonstrate that China is a leader and a power in physics or string theory? Or prove that China has the largest audience for Hawking's theories? Or improve China's level of science?

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There are currently 2 Comments for Science vs. the paparazzi: string theory in Beijing.

Comments on Science vs. the paparazzi: string theory in Beijing

1. i guess Yau (Qiu) wanted to use him to raise the general awareness and status of science and research in China

2. hawking enjoyed being a rock star, so i am not entirely sure if he would be happy had he been left alone as he was in cambridge

3. of all the participants in the string conference, hawking is perhaps the final 5 percentile whose research has anything to do with string theory. so it is not quite right to say 'promoting' string theory, since hawking has not done any research in string and is not a string theorist.
yau, gross, strominger, witten are.

Right on, Sun Bin. I bet that poseur Hawking has never even tried string cheese!

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