Stephen Hawking, a defiant will against a death foretold

“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the Universe, why it is as it is, and why it exists at all”, declared the Physicist Stephen Hawking who recently died, aged 76. Hubris? Perhaps, but, then again, if anyone had the brilliance, drive, and sheer force of will to unravel the mysteries of the Universe, it was him.

Like almost everyone who is touched by greatness, Hawking leaves behind not only an impressive body of work in his field of theoretical physics, and cosmology, but, an inspirational example of a life lived to the full.

In 1963, at the tender age of 21, still at the beginning of his scientific research at Cambridge University, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a degenerative disease that attacks  and progressively destroys motor neurons, the group of cells which control muscle activity, including walking, speaking, swallowing, even breathing. It is incurable, and always fatal.

Hawking’s doctors did not expect him to live beyond his 23rd birthday. He would go on live for another 55 years. The form of the disease he had progresses more slowly, but, even so, his survival as long as he did was still astounding, and both he and his doctors were baffled by his defiance of the grim realities of the original diagnosis.

He of course could have had no way of knowing that he would survive the disease as long as he did, and might have been forgiven had he given in to depression, or if he had decided to spend the remaining two years he had been given, in a long farewell party to the Universe.

Instead, he embarked on some of the most important, original breakthroughs in cosmology of any generation. “Although there was a cloud over my future,” he would say, “I found to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present, more than before, I begun to make progress with my research.”

That progress included changing the way we see the Universe, in particular a new understanding of black holes. These are created when massively heavy objects such as stars collapse due to their own gravity, to become a “singularity”, a point where density is infinite, the gravitational field so strong, that within a distance known as the “event horizon”, not even light can escape. 

The discovery of what is now known as the Hawking radiation, that black holes can radiate energy from close to the event horizon, will keep theoretical physicists arguing with Hawking, in spirit at any rate, for generations to come.

His work on Quantum Fluctuations in 1982 - a temporary change in the amount of energy in space - was described by MIT (Massachusettes Institutute of Technology) physics Professor, Max Tegmark, as “one of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science.”  Hawking’s bestselling book, The Brief History of Time, popularised him and his ideas, outside the scientific community.

Outside family, friends and acquaintances who knew him intimately, Hawking will be remembered as the genius mind trapped in an immobile body, in a specially adopted wheelchair. In 1985, he came so close to death, the doctors considered switching off his life support.

His first wife, Jane Wilde, however refused to give permission. His life was saved after a tracheotomy, but, at the cost of his voice, which was replaced by the now almost iconic speech synthesiser.

And yet, in spite of his severe disabilities, it seemed natural that he automatically inspired awe, rather than pity. His mind soared beyond his incapacitated body, to advance humanity’s understanding of the mysteries of the Universe.

“I am not afraid of death”, he said, “but, I am in no hurry to die, I have so much I want to do first.” And how true he was to his word. Without any movement, without even the power of speech except with the aid of a computer, his achievements, in a relatively short period of time, remain astonishing by any standards.

But as much as his achievements in cosmology, his strength of spirit must surely be one of the most outstanding legacies not only to the scientists who follow in his footsteps, but, to all of us. Here was a man without the power of speech who spoke loudest and to greater effect than almost everyone else with the gift of speech.

A man without any movement in his body, who for more than fifty years since he was first diagnosed with the disease, lived each day as though it might be his last, managed such great activity and prodigious body of work, the mere thought of which would exhaust the able bodied.

It would have been natural for anyone with normal human empathy to look at Hawking’s broken body, and feel pity and sympathy. Such feelings however were drowned out not only by his the brilliance of his mind, but, by his zest for life, humour, his appreciation of each moment lived.

In his popular poem IF, Rudyard Kipling, promises us the world, if we can “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty second’s worth of distance run”. Anyone wishing to live by such advice can surely have no better exemplar than Stephen Hawking.

Professor Sir Roger Penrose, who worked closely with Hawking said of him, “he thought he didn’t have long to live, and he really wanted to get as much as he could done...”

Fittingly, Professor Hawking’s ashes was interred in Westminster Abbey, next to those of Sir Isaac Newton, and other great British scientists, whose work irrevocably changed our understanding of the natural world.

Predictably for a great scientist, Hawking could not conceive anything that could be explained only through faith, defying human reason. He had much to say about the existence of God, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or after life for broken down computers; that is a fairytale for people afraid of the dark.”

Perhaps not for broken down computers, but, there may be a heaven for great a soul as his, and our prayers should be with him and his family. He would love the irony. Hawking leaves three children, and three grandchildren.

Twitter: @MweneGahaya


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