Please allow me to nerd this one out.
It was a rather sad week with the unexpected passing of English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author, and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge Stephen Hawking.
I was introduced to Stephen Hawking’s books, particularly A Brief History of Time and On the Shoulders of Giants, late in life. Although my interest in the cosmos and the universe stretches as far back as I could recall, I got to read Hawking only after college.
No matter how he tried, Hawking, to me, with his signature easy-read language, remained a hard read. Hardly because of scientific terms and phrases. No. I’ve been an avid reader of science from the day I saw pictures of the solar system in a dust-covered book in an elementary school library.
It was his idea of time and the universe that baffles, and yet immediately inspires me. His vision of time, alternate and parallel universes, black holes, dark matter, and quantum mechanics and cosmology in general spans such a large area, it’s almost impossible for my mind to grasp them in one sitting.
On the contrary, not once have I spewed any pretense of genius, let alone appropriate for myself another’s flair for understanding what I feel couldn’t be remotely grasped even if they tried. Hawking, however, was pure genius, the kind which entrapped him in a chair wired with gadgets for the better part of his career.
The one thing I love about Hawking apart from his knowledge of the time and the universe is his gift for not losing hold of his humanity, and recognizing the same in the people around him.
To Hawking, imperfection rather than perfection proves vital to our existence if not humanity’s search for the means to survive. “Next time someone complains that you have made a mistake,” he was once quoted, “tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” (Into the Universe, 2010).
The same imperfections, he said, should allow to see ourselves for what we are, at once majestic and fearsome, all because of what we have chosen to become: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
His humility, too, regardless of his achievements, was arresting. In an interview with the New York Times in Dec. 2004 where he was asked about his IQ, Hawking said, “I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.”
In life, Hawking was always quick to admit to his failure to know everything. For someone who, on a daily basis, contemplates the scope and magnitude of the known and unknown universe, that’s saying a lot.
For example, when asked about women in an interview with The New Scientist in January 2012, he said, “They are a complete mystery.”
Being disabled, wrapped to a wheelchair for the longest time, hardly stopped Hawking from allowing his mind to soar to unbelievable heights.
And yet, by his own words, he doesn’t immediately delve into the “profoundness” of his disabililty, but rather, the simplicity of his idea of human life, even as he repeatedly threw some humor in his answers to queries for good measure.
Neither had he relinquished any memory of the kindnesses that had been offered his way.
From a quote from “Handicapped People and Science,” Science Digest 92, No. 9, September 1984: “If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap. I am afraid that Olympic Games for the disabled do not appeal to me, but it is easy for me to say that because I never liked athletics anyway.
“On the other hand, science is a very good area for disabled people because it goes on mainly in the mind. Of course, most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for most such people, but theoretical work is almost ideal. My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”
Hawking was never hostile even as a vessel of genius. His straightforward humor and display of wit were something to marvel at, even as he answered questions requiring some depth to them.
In his book Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, Hawking quipped, “I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
On the mind-boggling rigmaroles of time travel and what possible timeframe would he prefer to revisit should the theory becomes a possibility, Hawking, the doting father, answered, “I would go back to 1967, and the birth of my first child, Robert. My three children have brought me great joy” (The New York Times, May 2011).
His death, to me, is sad because God or the universe (whatever you may have come to believe) never create geniuses like Stephen Hawking anymore. Humble, unpretentious, human and humane, and I would even go to the extent of saying shy. Maybe, like every one of us, Hawking may have concealed some skeletons in the closet, too, who knows?
But this much I am certain: Hawking’s genius had garnered for himself a level of humanity we could only dream of reaching. His real genius lies in the way he views life as against the vast unknowable universe:
To his children: “One, remember to 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 it away.”
Rest now, Mr. Hawking. Thank you for keeping the faith and showing us how. G
*Qoutes lifted from Mental Floss’ “11 Incredible Stephen Hawking Quotes” compiled and written by Erin McCarthy, published 14 March 2018.