When Jane Hawking sat down to have an interview with The Guardian in 2015, not long after the release of The Theory of Everything, a biopic of Stephen Hawking’s life, one of the things she said that stood out was that there were more than two partners in her marriage.
“The truth was, there were four partners…Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and physics,” she said. “If you took out motor neurone disease, you are still left with physics.”
The motor neurone disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was the debilitating illness that eventually led to his passing on March 14 this year, aged 76. He was mourned by hundreds at his funeral in Cambridge on March 31.
If Hawking wasn’t so passionate about physics – a passion that Jane says was a contributing factor in their separation – we wouldn’t have as big of an understanding of the universe as we do today.
As the world mourns the death of one of the most iconic theoretical physicists of our time, Hawking was a man who left us with many profound theories and discoveries, but maybe even more profound questions.
Hawking’s discoveries on the cosmos far exceeded those of previous physicists, and often “we depended [on him] to make advances and attempt to explain them to the rest of us” (Vanity Fair).
Human’s insatiable desire to understand our place in the universe made Hawking a popular figure in society. But it was his cheeky sense of humour and daredevil attitude that made him an unlikely cultural icon. He held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University – once held by Isaac Newton – and wrote one of the most famous science books of all time, A Brief History of Time.
But you might remember him enjoying a beer and discussing Homer’s ‘donut-shaped universe’ on the Simpsons, testing Sheldon’s intellect on The Big Bang Theory, or beating Einstein in poker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even though he spent much of his time challenging theories of the universe, he still made time to show us that, not only is he pure genius, but also comedic gold. After all, in an interview with the New York Times, Hawking said, “life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”.
Hawking had a bright future ahead of him after graduating from University College, Oxford, with a degree in natural sciences, and starting a graduate position in Cosmology at Cambridge. But it was a year later, in 1963, when he was diagnosed with the degenerative nerve disorder, ALS, and told he had less than two years to live.
But Hawking baffled doctors by passing that time frame. Far exceeding it, actually. Despite losing what remained of his speech in 1985 after a bout of pneumonia, his “intellect stayed sharp” (New Scientist).
Hawking surely wouldn’t have believed that twenty-five years after his diagnosis, in 1988, he would have published A Brief History of Time, selling over ten million copies. He was also married to Jane, who he met at Cambridge, and had three young children.
The release of A Brief History of Time brought into mainstream theories to the questions that plague us as humans – where did the universe come from? How did we get here? How will it end?
Hawking wrote the book with a minimal amount of technical terms so that it would be easily understandable to non-scientific readers. However, surveys have uncovered that many people quit around the Chapter Four mark (Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge By Beth Luey).
You can hardly argue that most people put it down due to boredom. But it certainly is a testament to his intellect – that his mind and way of understanding the universe was simply too profound for many of us to wrap our heads around.
However, his status as a cultural icon made him approachable and relatable, helping “non-geniuses among us gain entry into incredibly complex thoughts” (Rolling Stone).
In his whole career as a physicist, author, professor and cosmologist, it was his discoveries on black holes and the theory of the origin of the universe that made him a scientist to be remembered. He never let physical limitations stop him. In his own words;
“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
Hawking shed light on the darkness and perplexed even the most inquisitive and scientific of minds. He was an inspiration, with a brilliant mind and a wicked sense of humour; who cemented his legacy as a revolutionary, a great thinker, and a man with notable wit (Rolling Stone).
Arguably one of the most successful physicists of all time, he leaves us looking up at the stars, wondering what this thing we call life is all about.
Supplied photos: hawking.org