How did the universe come into being? Why are we here? And where are we heading? Stephen Hawking was on a mission to answer those questions. But he was also in a race against time, trapped in a body ravaged by Lou Gehrig’s disease.
However, given just two years to live when first diagnosed, Stephen Hawking managed to extend his life-span to 76, when he died this month in Cambridge, England.
Hawking also stretched the limits of the human mind to know what may well be the unknowable; namely the origins and future of our universe.
The mid-to-late 1970s was a period of growing research into “black holes” and the role they play in the formation of new star systems in the universe. Hawking received increasing academic recognition for his leading work in this field, including being honoured by Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
However, his many awards were no help to Hawking's financial status, and his need to finance his three children's education and home expenses, so he decided to write a book about the universe that would be accessible to the general public. This book, “A Brief History of Time” appeared on the U.K. Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks, such was his popular appeal.
All this was part of his mission in life, but what captured the respect and admiration of the world was the physical adversities he suffered which worsened as time went on.
It was in the middle of his studies at Cambridge University that he was first diagnosed with a slow-progressing form of “motor neurone disease”, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But, even after eventually losing his speech, and near-total bodily paralysis, he was still able to communicate through a “speech-generating device”, operated by a simple hand-held switch, and eventually by one of his cheek muscles that still worked.
It’s fair to say that for Hawking the critical body organs that extended his life, and aided his mission, were in his cardiovascular system that supplied the needed oxygenated blood to his mind, until the day he passed away.
His persona could truly be described as “a mind with a mission”, but there are lessons we can learn from Hawking’s remarkable life that would serve us well as we meet our own challenges.
Firstly, in spite of his physical difficulties, he managed to maintain a positive outlook on life, including a healthy sense of humour. Even in his final years he could show a twinkle in his eyes, and what looked like a smile on his puckish face, when something tickled his fancy. He also relished the occasional guest appearance in the popular media such as The Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, and The Simpsons.
Contributing to his positive outlook was a strong sense of purpose that carried him through the afflictions he suffered. While we can’t hope to take on the challenges on the scale that he did in his life, for us to regularly have something worthwhile to tackle and succeed at, can have a satisfying positive affect on our own lives.
We also learned from Hawking of the relative importance of mind over body in our daily lives. In his final years his body was an unsightly, failing vessel that he could just as well have done without, if not for the needs of his brain.
Quite a contrast to many lives where attention is lavished on physical appearances, while brains deteriorate from what has been described as “amusing ourselves to death”.
Hawking’s remains are to be buried at Westminster Abbey, near those of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, two other giants of the scientific world. I’m sure that he was told of this honor beforehand, but he probably valued his association with the scientific contributions of these heroes more than the placing of his own remains close to theirs. His disdain of such worldly honours was also reflected in his refusal of a knighthood some years ago. I’m sure that he saw the title of “Sir” Stephen Hawking as baggage that would not get him any closer to succeeding in his mission.
Albert Einstein, another giant of the scientific world, displayed a similar attitude towards his own mortal remains. While a pathologist had removed his brain for preservation, Einstein’s remains were cremated, and his ashes were scattered at an undisclosed location, according to his wishes.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and
worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.