A brief history of Hawking


NO ONE, LEAST OF ALL your impromptu obituarist, is short of amazement and admiration at the surprisingly long life of Professor Stephen Hawking.

The theoretical physicist has died, aged 76. No grand old age, perhaps, but then Hawking DID live with motor neurone disease for more than half a century; stricken by the disease in 1963, at the age of 21, he was 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 a lot of its buyers were famously said not to have read the book, nor was it fully understood by many of those who did.

Essentially, 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 the 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’ve even 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.

Remarkably, he achieved so much without being able to write anything down in the usual way, reminding us that people are so much more than their bodies. It should also prompt us never to make assumptions about physical disability.

Those assumptions include not mistaking someone for a saint simply because of the challenges he faced. Hawking had personal ups and downs:  his first marriage ended in divorce, whereupon he married his nurse, a relationship that also ended in divorce.

According to the plethora of obituaries, in his undergraduate years at Oxford he was not particularly hard-working, after three years straddling 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 forced to surrender to his disability he became notorious 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.

Few 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.

when most of us die we are forgotten by all but family and friends. Stephen Hawking will long be remembered, indeed he has almost certainly achieved immortality.

Not a bad trick to play with time.


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