Saturday 22 September 2018

Obituary: Stephen Hawking

Martin Rees remembers the visionary man - and medical marvel - he met as a young student in Cambridge

Against all odds: Professor Stephen Hawking. Photo: PA
Against all odds: Professor Stephen Hawking. Photo: PA

Soon after enrolling as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me. He was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty, the result of a degenerative disease he had been diagnosed with. His name was Stephen Hawking, and it was thought he might not survive long enough to finish his PhD.

That he survived to the age of 76 is a medical marvel, but of course he didn't merely survive. Few, if any, of Einstein's successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space and time.

Stephen was elected to the Royal Society, Britain's main scientific academy, at the exceptionally young age of 32. I worked in the same building and would often push his wheelchair into his office, where he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory. He would sit, hunched motionless for hours - unable to turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind.

Within a year, he came up with his best-ever idea - his "Eureka" moment into the nature of black holes - encapsulated in an equation that he wanted etched on his memorial stone.

After the onset of his disease, within a few years he was wheelchair-bound, his speech reduced to an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. But, fortune had also favoured him. He married Jane Wilde, a family friend who gave him a supportive home life and their three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim.

Cambridge was Stephen's base throughout his career and he became a familiar figure, navigating around the city's streets in his wheelchair. By the end of the 1970s, he had advanced to one of the university's most distinguished posts - the Lucasian professorship of mathematics, once held by Newton himself. He held this chair with distinction for 30 years and, after retiring in 2009, was appointed a special research professorship.

In 1987, Stephen contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he still had. It had been more than 10 years since he could write or use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards letters he had on a big board.

But he was saved by technology. At that time, he still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser, complete with the androidal American accent that became his trademark.

His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so even a sentence took several minutes. He learnt to economise with words. His comments were aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. Later, he became too weak to control this machine effectively, even via facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication - to his immense frustration - grew even slower.

His achievements aside, there was a human story behind Stephen's struggle.

The need for support (first from a succession of students, then later a team of nurses) strained his marriage to breaking point, especially when augmented by the pressure of his growing celebrity. Jane's book, on which The Theory of Everything is based, chronicles the 25 years during which, with amazing dedication, she underpinned his family life and career.

After Stephen and Jane divorced, in 1995, he married Elaine Mason, one of his nurses whose former husband had designed Stephen's speech synthesiser.

But this broke up within a decade.

He was sustained thereafter by a team of helpers and personal assistants, as well as his family. His daughter Lucy has written books for children with her father as co-author.

Why did Stephen become such a cult figure? The concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people's imagination. When the US edition of his 1988 book A Brief History of Time was published, the printers had made an error and a photograph appeared upside down. The publishers tried to recall the stock but, to their amazement, discovered all of the copies had already been sold. Four years on, it remained on bestseller lists around the world.

Stephen featured in numerous TV programmes including Star Trek and The Simpsons; his lectures filled the Royal Albert Hall and similar venues in the US and Japan. He spoke at Clinton's White House and was back there more recently when former president Obama presented him with the US Medal of Freedom. In the summer of 2012, he reached perhaps his largest-ever audience when he had a central role at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games.

His 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in January 2002 were a memorable occasion for all of us. Hundreds of leading scientists came from all over the world to honour and celebrate Stephen's discoveries and to spend a week discussing the latest theories on space, time and the cosmos. But the celebrations weren't just scientific - that wasn't Stephen's style. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren and there was music and singing. When the week was over, he finished it off with a trip in a hot-air balloon.

His 70th birthday was again marked by an international gathering of scientists in Cambridge, and also some razzmatazz. So was his 75th birthday, though it was shared by several million people via a live stream on the internet. He was, in these last years, plainly weakening.

Stephen was far from being the archetype of an unworldly or nerdish scientist - his personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. Even into his last decade, he was still able to deliver entertaining (and sometimes rather moving) lectures via his speech synthesiser and with the aid of skilfully prepared visuals.

He also loved to travel, often involving an entourage of assistants and nurses. On a trip to Canada, he was undeterred by having to go two miles down a mineshaft to visit an underground laboratory.

When he visited Israel in 2006, he insisted on going to the West Bank.

Newspapers published remarkable photographs of him surrounded by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah.

Even more astonishing are the photographs of him "floating" in the Nasa aircraft (the "vomit comet") that allows passengers to experience weightlessness - he was manifestly overjoyed at escaping, albeit briefly, the clutches of the gravitational force he'd studied for decades and which had so cruelly imprisoned his body.

As well as his extensive travels, he enjoyed trips to the theatre and the opera. He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions. His fame, and the allure of his public appearances, gave him the resources for nursing care, and protected him against the indignity that disabled people often endure.

One downside of his iconic status, however, was that his comments attracted exaggerated attention, even on topics where he had no special expertise - for instance, philosophy, or the dangers of aliens or intelligent machines.

There was, however, absolutely no gainsaying his lifelong commitment to campaigns for disabled people and, in just the last few months, in support of the NHS, to which he acknowledged he owed so much. He was always sensitive to the misfortunes of others. When in hospital soon after he was diagnosed with his illness, his depression was lifted when he compared his lot with a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukaemia.

Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 22. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and his expectations dropped to zero. He himself said that everything that happened since then was a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been.

Professor Stephen Hawking, born January 8 1942, died March 14.

  • Lord Rees of Ludlow is the British Astronomer Royal

© Telegraph

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