THE impromptu obituarist sitting on a ledge is not short of snippets to glean about the surprisingly long life of Stephen Hawking.
The theoretical physicist has died aged 76. Not a grand old age, but Hawking lived with motor neurone disease for more than 50 years. He was struck by the disease in 1963, at the age of 21, and given two years to live.
Although his academic achievements were towering, his fame rested on the connections he made with the wider world, including through his book A Brief History of Time. This surprise bestseller sold ten million copies but was famously said not to have been read or understood by many of those who bought a copy.
Through his work with the mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, Hawking demonstrated that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning and an end: a Big Bang at the start, with everything ending in black holes.
It would be foolish of me to pretend to understand his theory that if a black hole could evaporate, then all the information that fell inside over its lifetime would be lost forever. Untruthful, too, to say that I’d read A Brief History of Time.
Still, you cannot help but be aware of Hawking, not least for the way he surmounted the cruel parameters of the disease that contorted his body but left his mind free to roam the universe.
‘We should not mistake someone for a saint because of the challenges they face’
Remarkably, he achieved so much without being able to write anything down in the usual way. This reminds us that a person is so much more than their body. It should prompt us never to make assumptions about physical disability.
Those assumptions include not mistaking someone for a saint because of the challenges they face. Hawking had personal ups and downs: his first marriage ended in divorce when he married his nurse, a relationship that also ended in divorce.
According to this morning’s obituaries, in his undergraduate years at Oxford he was not particularly hard working. After three years he sat on the borderline between a first and a second-class degree. Calculating that he was regarded as a difficult student, he offered his viva examiners a proposal: give me a first and I’ll pursue my PhD at Cambridge. They obliged and were rid of him – and he of them.
A small incident in the grand scale of things, although it does suggest that native cunning accompanied the intellectual smarts.
Hawking initially resisted a wheelchair, preferring to use crutches. But when he had to give in, he was known for his reckless driving around Cambridge.
As his illness took a greater toll, he could no longer speak – something which, ironically, made his voice all the louder. Using a synthesiser, he acquired the sparky robotic tones that carried further than most natural voices.
Not many scientists connect so widely. Hawking did this through appearances in everything from the Simpsons to a Pink Floyd album – and on the American comedy The Big Bang Theory, where he reviewed Sheldon’s paper on the Higgs boson: “You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite the boner.”
Hawking’s early life was portrayed in the biopic The Theory of Everything. The film was final proof that his surprising life had reached beyond science.
Most of us die and are forgotten by all apart from family and friends. Stephen Hawking will long be remembered and has almost certainly achieved immortality. Not a bad trick to play with time.