Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
Everybody dies, yet not everybody truly lives; just living to 76 was a great triumph for this brave man. In 1964 at the age of 22 he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given just a few years to live. Eventually he became confined to his wheelchair, a prisoner of his own body, depending on a computerised voice system to communicate. It was this system that gave him his distinctive voice.
Despite these severe handicaps, Hawking became a massively influential figure in the world of physics, a father, a best-selling author, and a celebrity, that most 21st century of achievements! Yet he was wisely modest about his achievements. On being asked if he was the most intelligent person in the world, he answered, “I would never claim this. I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
Eddie Redmayne won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. Hawking commented wittily, “unfortunately, Eddie did not inherit my good looks.”
Hawking’s book A Brief History Of Time has sold more than 10 million copies. ,He was a great communicator, and became a symbol of stubborn strength and courage as much as science. We are all frail and mortal, but so many of us would be floored by a fraction of what he suffered. As he said, “however difficult life is, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t give up.”
Credit must be given to his two wives and the army of carers and nurses who took care of him. Especially Jane his first wife, who endured many lonely hard years keeping Stephen well. Without her he never would have been healthy enough to discover Hawking radiation or complete his groundbreaking work on black holes. Confined as he was to a wheelchair from the late 60s onwards, even simple tasks like eating or turning the pages of a book escaped him. How we all take such things for granted; we don’t value them, like all things, until they escape us. Here too, his stubborn streak served him well. “My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics.”
His reach certainly encompassed the stars. “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe: why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
His three children summed up his legacy well. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and live on for many years.”
Indeed, his final research paper was completed on his deathbed and could hold the key to proving that multiple universes, the multiverse, exist. Experts believe that had Stephen Hawking lived, it might have put him in the running for the Noble Prize. The paper contains the maths needed for a space probe to find experimental evidence for the theory that our universe is only one of many. To date, scientists have never been able to prove this theory experimentally.
Interestingly, for someone who didn’t believe in predestination, Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, which was 300 years to the day after Galileo died. It was also 300 years after the birth of Isaac Newton. Galileo was born in 1564, the year of Michelangelo’s death and Shakespeare’s birth. Comets should fill the sky on that date!
Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1964, when Hawking was given a mere two years to live it was not even thought he would live long enough to complete his PhD. Yet he survived to become a giant in the scientific field, a celebrity scientist spoken of in the same tones as Newton and Einstein. He was elected to the Royal Society at the age of 32, and by the end of the 70s had achieved one of the University of Cambridge’s most distinguished posts – the Lucasian professorship of mathematics, a post once held by the aforementioned Newton. He held this post for thirty years
He first came to prominence in the scientific community in 1974 with the publication in the journal Nature of a paper entitled “Black Hole Explosions.” It was later described by the cosmologist Dennis Sciama as “one of the most beautiful papers in the history of physics.” Hawking’s paper showed that black holes, hitherto undetectable, emitted what is now called Hawking radiation. He applied quantum thinking successfully here, and always hoped to come up with the Theory of Everything.
In 1987, Hawking contracted pneumonia, and had to undergo a tracheotomy, which destroyed the few powers of speech he still had. Unable to write or use a keyboard, the only way left to communicate was by directing his eye towards letters on a board.
But technology came to his rescue. At that point he still had the use of one hand, and a computer, controlled by a single lever, enabled him to spell out sentences, which were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser (designed by the former husband of Elaine Mason, Hawking’s second wife). This was to give him his iconic androidal voice, popular and memorable both on television and in lectures.
A lesson we could all learn from Hawking is this: It took such effort to create words, a sentence would take several minutes, that he learned to economise and truly make his words count. Hence their great weight and wit! In a world where people babble mindlessly on social media and the real world, we would all do well to follow his example, because correctly chosen and thought out words can remake the world. Hawking, in this, knew that we cannot control outside events, only ourselves if we try hard enough. He could not have survived without this philosophy; his life actually proves it experimentally.
He came to the attention of the world at large in 1988 with the publication in A Brief History of Time, a book partially written to pay for the care he required. It made him a star worldwide. He wrote that one day we would have a Theory of Everything, one that “should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
He went on to appear on The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Futurama, Little Britain, and even appeared in Monty Python’s farewell shows.
The public encountered the reality of that great brain, imprisoned in a wrecked body and yet seemingly able to survey the universe. He became the most well-known scientist since Albert Einstein. Like Einstein he was instantly recognisable. And like Einstein he was regarded as man who could see further and deeper than mere mortals.
Hawking was presented with the US Medal of Freedom by president Obama, and played a central role at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics Games. Indeed he always acknowledged a great deal to the NHS (National Health Service).
One of the most telling anecdotes about Hawking shows his empathy for others and sense of perspective. Shortly after having being diagnosed with motor neuron disease, he was in hospital where he saw the boy in the next bed dying of leukemia, and saw himself as fortunate.
The symbol of Hawking was the combination of the his ruined body encased in the massive wheelchair that supported him. His computerised voice with its wise clipped sentences further enhanced and indeed identified him. For decades to come, the enigma of this great brain managing to triumph over a ravaged body will linger in the public imagination.
Moreover, when he could no longer write equations, he imagined his speculations as visual images which others then wrote the supporting equations for. He was, indeed, like some futuristic Delphic oracle. And like the Delphic oracles, he gave opinions on a wide variety of subjects.
For instance, he thought that an encounter between humanity and intelligent aliens would go something like H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. “Meeting a more advanced civilisation, at our present stage, might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better for it.”
He particularly feared the reality of global warming, commenting on President Trump’s withdrawal of America from the Paris Climate Change Treaty: “we are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink.”
He feared artificial intelligence, feeling it was very dangerous, that it “may just replace humans altogether.” Remember Hawking’s words when next you are served by an automated machine that replaced a fellow human being’s job. What price the loss of the human factor in life so that corporations can increase their profits (though every job they slash will eventually cost them as none of these people will have disposable income to spend on their products).
Hawking, in both his own words, and Oscar Wilde’s, was forever looking at the stars. He was, and is, a great hero of our time, and indeed all time. So many ‘heroes’ earned that title through war, greed, and bloodshed. Hawking earned his through courage, and the understanding, one that people are only now coming to accept through mindfulness, that the mind and will are the true key to all things.
He was a man who sailed the inner seas of the mind, a mirror in miniature of the universe he explored. In reality, it was he was that truly free, not the so-called able bodied. He made every second count. He saw no barriers to learning, and knew the universe was in constant flux. Unlike the majority of people he was not blind to the worlds within us, waiting to be born. His life, courage, and scientific insights will be talked about in centuries to come, and that is more than anyone could hope to achieve. He made his whole life into a triumph, one that will continue far beyond his death.
I will end this piece with the great man’s own wise and witty words. When you consider the great effort he had to put into creating these words, we should value his wisdom all the more.
On his work
Of the ‘Eureka’ moment of scientific discovery: “I wouldn’t compare it to sex but it lasts longer.”
“I believe alien life is quite common in the Universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.”
“If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
“When people ask me if a God created the Universe, I tell them the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth. The Earth is a sphere. It does not have an edge so looking for it is a futile exercise.”
“The idea of ten dimensions might sound exciting, but they would cause real problems if your forgot where you parked your car.”
“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.”
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planer of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.”
“It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value.”
“If I had a time machine I’d visit Marilyn Monroe in her prime – or drop in on Galileo as he turned his telescope to the heavens.”
“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
“I regard the afterlife to be a fairy story for people that are afraid of the dark.”
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
His philosophy of life
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
“When I was 12, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled.”
“The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognised. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.”
“I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die – I have so much to do first.”
Finally, his wisest piece of wisdom of all, one the world we live in today could do well to take notice of….
“One, look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw if away.”