STEPHEN HAWKING, the wheelchair-confined celebrated scientist who died this week at age 76 is one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Albert Einstein.
He was one handicapped man who did not allow disability to eclipse and stop him from fully using his God-given talent to explain and unravel the mystery of creation from a scientific point of view.
For more than three decades at Cambridge University, he held the illustrious position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. As a writer, he dazzled millions of readers all over the world with his bestselling memoir, A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 237 weeks. His other popular books include Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, The Universe in a Nutshell, A Brief History of Time, and The Grand Design.
Here, the most brilliant cosmologist ever tells the pathetic yet triumphant odyssey of a man who refused to bow to disability and was propelled by the fear of an early death to stretch his mind into explorative thinking about the untold story of the universe. This is an excerpt from his bestselling mini-autobiography My Brief History which I bought during a recent trip to Cambridge where Hawking, the super brainy genius lived and died.
When I was twenty-one and contracted motor neurone disease, I felt it was very unfair. Why should this happen to me? At that time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realize the potential I felt I had. But now, fifty years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life.
I have been married twice and have three beautiful and accomplished children. I have been successful in my scientific career: I think most theoretical physicists would agree that my prediction of quantum emissions from black holes is correct, though it has not so far earned me a Nobel Prize because it is very difficult to verify experimentally.
On the other hand, I won the even more valuable Fundamental Physics Prize, awarded for the theoretical significance of the discovery despite the fact that it has not been confirmed by experiment.
My disability has not been a serious handicap in my scientific work. In fact, in some ways I guess it has been an asset: I haven’t had to lecture or teach undergraduates, and I haven’t had to sit on tedious and time-consuming committees. So I have been able to devote myself completely to research.
To my colleagues, I am just another physicist, but to the wider public, I became possibly the best known scientist in the world. This is partly because scientists, apart from Einstein, are not widely known rock stars, and partly because I fit the stereotype of a disabled genius. I can’t disguise myself with a wig and dark glasses—the wheelchair gives me away.
Being well known and easily recognizable has its pluses and minuses. The minuses are that it can be difficult to do ordinary things such as shopping without being besieged by people wanting photographs, and that in the past the press has taken an unhealthy interest in my private life. But the minuses are more than outweighed by the pluses.
People seem genuinely pleased to see me. I even had my biggest-ever audience when I was the anchor for the Paralympic Games in London in 2012.
I have had a full satisfying life. I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn’t prevent them from doing and not regret those they can’t do.
In my case, I have managed to do most things I wanted. I travelled widely. I visited the Soviet Union seven times. The first time I went with a student party in which one member, a Baptist, wished to distribute Russian-language Bibles and asked us to smuggle them in.
We managed this undetected, but by the time we were on our way out the authorities had discovered what we had done and detained us for a while. However, to charge us with smuggling Bibles would have caused and international incident and unfavourable publicity, so they let us go after a few hours.
The other six visits were to see Russian scientists who at that time were not allowed to travel to the West. After the end of the Soviet Union in 1990, many of the best scientists left for the West, so I have not been to Russia since then.
I have also visited Japan six times, China three times and every continent, including Antarctica, with the exception of Australia.
I have met the presidents of South Korea, China, India, Ireland, Chile, and the United States. I have lectured in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and in the White House.
I have been under the sea in a submarine and up in a hot air balloon and zero-gravity flight, and I’m booked to go into space with Virgin Galactic.
My early work showed that classical general relativity broke down at singularities in the Big Bang and black holes. My later work has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time.
It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe.