Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Clever Cox

Regarding last Sunday’s HTBS entry, Tim Koch writes,

The ‘Cambridge’ blade at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm seems at first a curious and rather random piece on memorabilia. In theory the crew could have existed around 1937 (the year ‘cox’ Ernest Rutherford died), but the twelve people listed (including the then nine-year old James ‘DNA’ Watson) would have to fit in one eight and they would have to know that the seven of them not then honoured would win Nobel Prizes in the future. This would only be possible if, between them, they could change the time - space continuum. A conspiracy theory anyone?

Taking a random sample of great rowing universities we can see that Cambridge has produced 85 Nobel Prize winners, Columbia 72, Oxford 48, Harvard 43, Cornell 40, Princeton 32, and Yale 18. Someone with a lot of time on their hands could undoubtedly find a few rowers in this lot but it’s not going to be me. I will, however suggest a coxswain, sculler and rower who many think should have won the Nobel Physics Prize, but who, so far, has not. He is Professor Stephen Hawking. On his website he says of his Oxford days:

“I took up coxing and rowing. I was not Boat Race standard but I got by at the level of inter-College competition.”

This is from Stephen Hawking: Physicist and Educator (2004) by Bernard Ryan:

“A River Changes Stephen’s Personality.
Stephen’s undergraduate days at Oxford were taking him deep into the study of both general relativity and quantum physics, but he found himself bored and unchallenged.... after a year or so of little social activity, he discovered a centuries-old Oxford tradition: the sport of rowing... His strong voice and light weight made him an ideal coxswain....
(The college boatman), Norman Dix, thought Hawking was a skilled coxswain but noticed that he showed no interest in trying to become cox of the first boat.... Stephen also had a daredevil way of sometimes steering his boat through gaps so narrow that the shell returned to the boathouse with its blades damaged. ‘Half the time I got the distinct impression,’ Dix later recalled, ‘that he was sitting in the stern of the boat with his head in the stars, working out mathematical formulae.’
Being a crew coxswain changed both Stephen’s personality and his social life. He became a popular member of the ‘in crowd’, enjoying parties and participating in boisterous practical jokes after strenuous rowing practices....”

David Firth, who rowed at two in Hawking’s crew, later recalled:

“We were an appalling collection of individuals who didn’t train much so I knew Stephen as a very determined leader who made sure that our boat performed far better than any of us dared expect, because he wasn’t going to let us get away with a casual ride.”

Kristine Larsen, author of Stephen Hawking: A Biography (2007), notes the price the young student paid for his devotion to rowing:

“Stephen had to balance his time between his studies.... and his time on the river. Rowing demanded many hours of practice, six afternoons a week, which cut into the time he was supposed to spend doing experiments in his laboratory course. According to Gordon Berry (a fellow cox and physicist), he and Stephen cut serious corners in taking data, faking their way through parts of the experiments by using creative analysis to write their lab reports.”

Larsen also describes Hawking’s last year at Oxford when he noticed that he was becoming increasingly uncoordinated and clumsy: “He also found that he had difficulty rowing [sic] a sculling boat.”

Why has Stephen Hawking not received a Nobel Prize? Under the rules of the Prize Committee, any theory must be experimentally validated. Hawking’s ‘big’ theories have not yet been ‘proven’. By the same rule, Einstein did not get a prize for his Theory of Relativity.

In conclusion, we can speculate that, if Hawking had spend less time on the river, perhaps he would have a Nobel Prize and we would have time travel.

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