Postcard from London
Martin Rees, a former Astronomer Royal, has said of his lifelong friend astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who died March 14: “Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space, and time.”
His early career in the 1960s was by all accounts an exciting time for physics at Cambridge. It was the decade when theories began to emerge about the Big Bang and black holes. By the end of the 1970s, Hawking held the prestigious Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, a post once held by Isaac Newton.
The film The Theory of Everything draws on the experience of Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde, who shared his life for 25 years with awesome dedication and self-sacrifice. Hawking is played by Eddie Redmayne, depicting his very human struggle as a brilliant mind comes to terms with the onset of motor neurone disease. Redmayne stated: “We have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21,” Hawking once said in a New York Times interview. “Everything since then has been a bonus.” A man given just a couple of years to live confounded expectations by living to the age of 76. It is testament both to the strength of his mind and determination, the support of his family, caregivers, and his fellow scientists. Technical advances in communication devices played a huge part in propelling him to celebrity.
Despite huge physical limitations, being confined to a wheelchair and requiring a speech synthesizer, he had a rare gift among academics of an ability to engage with popular culture. He appeared on both The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He told a New York Times reporter, “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”
The image of a powerful mind in a crumpled body powerfully raised issues of faith, purpose, and the problem of suffering. An important subplot in the film is the contrast of Jane’s faith and Hawking’s views. Quite early in the film Jane joins the Hawking family for Sunday lunch.
“You haven’t said why you don’t believe in God,” she says.
He responds: “A physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a belief in a supernatural creator.”
This earns a feisty response: “Sounds less an argument against God than against physicists.”
Throughout his career, Hawking seemed to teeter on the edge of faith. He is said to have occasionally attended a Baptist church in Cambridge. His friend Lord Rees has urged people not to put much weight on his theological views, not least because he had read little theology.
Addressing the question of why the universe exists, he wrote in A Brief History of Time (1988): “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.” Hawking later said he meant that “we would know everything God knows, if there was a God, which there isn’t.”
He continued to play a cat-and-mouse game on the subject. “If I say I believe in God, everyone will immediately claim that I believe in the same God they believe in,” he told journalist Andrew Graystone. “So I won’t say at all.”