In 2002, while accompanying Florida college students to an international summer school in Cambridge, England, we were thrilled to have Stephen Hawking make a presentation to our summer school. Now, I had been taking students to Cambridge for multiple summers and often had what I called “Hawking Sightings.” Like turning a corner and discovering an elusive hawk, we’d turn the corner into a quaint medieval courtyard or narrow street, and there we’d discover Hawking.
He lived and worked in Cambridge, so he would be out and about at city centre, motoring along in his wheelchair, up and down the uneven sidewalks and over the cobbled streets, always with an accompanying carer. The public paid him a respectful distance but couldn't help themselves with chatter and pointing. As this was 2002, cell phones were in their primitive state, certainly none with cameras of note, so thank goodness, no selfies. Otherwise Hawking would have been bombarded by tourists and their selfie-sticks. But I do think he liked the attention and stir he created as he chugged his way down the medieval streets of Cambridge. It wouldn't have been past him to photo-bomb a few tourist shots either!
He especially enjoyed the Eagle Pub, that famous watering hole where Watson and Crick celebrated their discovery of DNA in nearby Cavendish Labs. Hawking was just one more prominent scientist who claimed Cambridge as an intellectual home — let’s add Harvey (circulation of blood), Darwin (evolution and survival of the fittest), Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb), Attenborough (naturalist, filmmaker), Fossey (paleontology, gorillas), Galton (physics, Manhattan Project), Bohr (physics, quantum theory), Babbage (father of the computer), and oh, yeah, that slacker Isaac Newton (astronomer, physics, optics, calculus). Newton was the first recipient of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, so it was appropriate when Hawking himself was named to that Chair.
He “spoke” to our gathered group in that famous AI voice we’ve come to recognize as the Hawking Voice. It’s achieved by a device attached to his glasses and he makes it speak by tensing his cheek muscle, which sends electric impulses to a computer, which in turns translates it into voice or email and Google browsing. In 2002, of course, this was still a primitive technology, but he held us in sway with his mind and his body. He talked some about his famous book, A Brief History of Time (1988) and about quantum mechanics and search for a unifying theory to explain everything in the universe in some coherent manner. I doubt that any of us listening to him understood a damn thing, but we were nonetheless enthralled to be in his presence.
Of course, he continued his work and research and thinking and writing up until his death last week (March 14, 2018). Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death (January 8, 1942). He died on 3.14, Pi Day, the first three numbers of that famous mathematical constant. March 14 also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday (both died at age 76). But we’re trying not to put too much emphasis on those cosmic conjunctions of Galileo, Einstein and Hawking. Still — time being circular and all that, no beginning and no end — it makes you wonder.
In 1916 Einstein first posited the notion of black holes — super-dense wells of gravity, so dense that light cannot escape — as part of his theory of relativity. Decades later Hawking expanded that work to predict that black holes can dribble out energy in the form of heat, resulting in black holes ultimately disappearing, a theory now known as Hawking Radiation.
Still confused? That’s OK.
Rest assured, Hawking’s theories and work will far outlast his brief time here. He still manages to stir both our scientific imagination and serve too as an unassuming, yet outspoken role model for those with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Recent controversy about that condition debates whether he was abled or disabled through that debilitating disease. Gal Gadot of Wonder Woman fame (who would ever have thought Wonder Woman and Stephen Hawking would be in the same sentence?) tweeted an appreciation for his life and work: "Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you're free of any physical constraints. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever."
Not everyone liked the notion of death freeing Hawking of physical constraints. Many have called that comment "ableist," that is, prejudiced and discriminative against those who are disabled. Challengers to Gadot commented that people with disabilities don't wish for death to be free from their challenges, but wish to be valued for they they can do, not pitied for what they can't.
Diagnosed wth ALS at age 21, he lived fifty years beyond what doctors had said initially. The life expectancy of a person with ALS is usually between three and five years, yet he defied those odds.
And lived. And thrived. And thrilled.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.