It’s not often that primetime television news reports on something as commonplace as a seventieth birthday. Even in our celebrity-obsessed culture, celebrity has its limits. Yet this month has seen not one, but two, septuagenarians hit the headlines with their birthday bashes – Stephen Hawking and Muhammad Ali.
At first sight, there could not be two more different characters than the boxer and the boffin. But it is the same cultural preoccupation that leads us to attend to both these birthdays – the collision between mind and matter. Hawking and Ali force us to confront the contradiction between the brute materiality of our bodies and the abstract plane of our intelligence.
Hawking, of course, shot to fame in 1988 with the publication of A Brief History of Time, a book fêted as much for how many copies were abandoned unread as for its record sales. In writing for a non-specialist audience, Hawking was following a long tradition of physicist popularisers, but no other popular physics book has delivered such enduring, world-wide fame for its author. Hawking’s book stood out not for its literary merit, nor the clarity of its explanations, but for the pathos and paradox of its author’s condition. His failing body confined within its wheelchair served as a foil for an intellect that dared to capture the entire history of the universe.
As a popular icon, Hawking takes the mythology surrounding the even more famous Albert Einstein to its logical conclusion. Einstein’s bodily presence had always been an important component of his celebrity. Think of all those photos of him with his tongue sticking out – not just a rebel but an embodied rebel. On Einstein’s death there were protracted tussles over who should get his brain and decades later Michael Jackson was reportedly interested in buying Einstein’s eyes. As the French philosopher Roland Barthes argued in his essay ‘The Brain of Einstein’, this bodily obsession was a central feature that drove the mythology of Einstein’s genius:
Paradoxically, the more the genius of the man was materialized under the guise of his brain, the more the product of his inventiveness came to acquire a magical dimension, and gave a new incarnation to the old esoteric image of a science entirely contained in a few letters. (Roland Barthes, Mythologies. London: Vintage, 1972. p. 69.)
Hawking’s disability has meant that his bodily incarnation has always stood out. Events concerning his body have been considered far more newsworthy than his scientific contributions. For instance, when USA Today reported that Hawking was briefly ill in 2009, it was their most visited web story of the week in a week that also saw a summit of the Americas, elections in South Africa and India, and the first full sequence of a cow’s genome. Needless to say, Hawking’s scientific publications get no such attention (just try finding any news coverage of his most recent paper on the eternal inflation of the universe).
Anthropologist Hélène Mialet argues that Hawking’s bodily functions, both motor and cognitive, are made more visible by his dependency on other people and machines to help him in these tasks. “They are, in effect, externalised and incorporated in other bodies. The professor is therefore more incorporated than any other theoretician, contrary to the image that is given of him.” (p. 566) In an analysis that she explores further in a forthcoming book, Mialet suggests:
In short, it is because it no longer functions that the scientist’s body becomes visible. Left credulously to grapple with this dialectic, we glorify him because he has transcended the conditions imposed on him by his own body, while the prevailing ideology promotes a scientist without a body or self-awareness. For the epistemologist, Stephen Hawking is not disabled: he has become a perfect scientist, a man without a voice, a machine, an angel. (p. 567)
And what of Muhammad Ali? Ali speaks to the same paradox but from the opposite side of the mind/body dichotomy. The boxer – any boxer – is all body, brute muscle, pulverising force. But Ali’s fleet-footed physicality suggested an equally agile mind and his witty media appearances and political conscience implied this was a boxer with a thinking brain. His early diagnosis at the age of 42 with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disease like Hawking’s motor neurone disease, converted Ali’s life story into a tragic narrative. Sharp as his intelligence might be, that bashed-up brain was finally losing control over its body.
Both Hawking and Ali focus our attention on the intersection of body, brain and mind. As the connection between brain and body is compromised neurologically, it becomes ever more potent in cultural imagery. These days, Hawking and Ali enter the news not for their respective scientific and sporting accomplishments, but for a very different sort of accomplishment, at once both mundane and extraordinary: having bodies that have survived for seventy years. They live!
Felicity Mellor is senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London.