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Stephen Hawking: an enabled spirit

StevenHawkingA year or two ago I went to see `The Theory of Everything`, the beautiful film about the life of Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist who died this week aged 76.
Before going I had been apprehensive that a film about a man in a wheel chair might be, well a little depressing. I was wrong. Eddie Redmayne is an outstanding actor with a Daniel Day-Lewis like ability to `inhabit` his character. But above all what a character, what an inspiring life Hawking had!
Stephen Hawking, who contributed more than any other scientist of his time to the study of gravity, was born on 8th January 1942, 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo who had begun studies in this field.
Soon after his 21st birthday, Hawking was told he was suffering from a neuromuscular wasting disease and that he had at most only a few years to live. The brilliant young student had been prematurely grounded and, quite understandably, he went into a severe depression.
The disease then seemed to stabilize and Hawking decided to keep on carrying on, a decision that had a lot to do with his relationship with Jane, who became his first wife.
In the end Hawking lived on for many decades. As the years went by, however, he lost the ability to communicate through speech as well as loosing almost all muscular control. Nevertheless, his intellectual and human achievements were on an immense scale.
Hawking once said, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.” In addition to phenomenal perseverance and unlimited intellectual curiosity, it was perhaps Hawking`s sense of humour which kept him not only going but equally enabled him to accomplish far more than most people who have never even been near a wheel chair.
To defend his ground-breaking ideas opposite an often-sceptical international scientific community, Dr Hawking travelled to conferences across the globe. He was also a best-selling author, with his most know work `A Brief History of Time` selling 10 million copies. Hawking married twice and fathered three children.
Whatever private mixture of frustration and fulfilment made up Hawking`s life, a twinkle could often be seen in his eye and an expression of smiling humanity on his face. When he had completely lost the ability to communicate through speech, a Californian computer engineer developed him a computer powered synthetic voice system. Blinking an eye to activate this system, Hawking was able to `produce` no more than 15 words per minute in the synthethiser`s Californian accent. “Please pardon my American accent,” he would quip. Conversation was thus slow, but Hawking`s interlocutors would invariably hang on to his every word.
“If we discover a complete theory (of the universe) it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists,” Hawking said, and this democratic approach to the sharing of knowledge – not always a characteristic of Oxbridge dons – was mirrored by his contribution to Pink Floyd songs or TV commercials. Hawking the pop culture icon even made a guest appearance on the Simpsons!
Not all riddles were elucidated however. When asked by the New Scientist Magazine what he thought about most, Dr Hawking replied “women. They are a complete mystery.” Indeed, scientists are not alone in considering this a field where further research needs to be done.
This week, on my Facebook news feed of all places, I saw a lovely illustration. There was an empty wheel chair and, a few paces off, a man was heading into space, completely free at last. Tomorrow is Monday and, instead of looking glumly down my to do list, as I usually do at the start of the week, I shall gratefully ponder Stephen Hawking`s marvellous life.
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The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company
See the 'Grape Discoveries' website
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