Hawking is an example of how important it is not to judge people by outward appearances or cast them aside because of apparent disability. What would have happened if Hawking had been aborted, though it’s true that there was no sign of this illness at his birth or before it? But it does bring up short anyone who thinks that people with disabling illnesses can make no contribution to society or that there’s not a great and wonderful imagination alive and active in an otherwise inactive body. I know of someone who was also confined by motor neuron disease and who wrote the most wonderful poetry. Like Hawking she had the mechanical means to communicate her thoughts, something that might not be available to all sufferers as I suspect there was quite a cost involved. For those who have it though this shows what technology at its best can do and how important it could be for the future well-being of our race.
From all reports Hawking was difficult to live with and it’s obvious how much looking after he would need. He was married three times and it’s easy to imagine how difficult it would be to live with someone who was such a genius and would have lived a lot in his head even if not confined to a wheel chair. He himself admitted that being a theoretical physicist was probably the best occupation for someone with his condition. What we do know though is that he had a great sense of humour. He appeared in programmes such as the Simpsons and Star Trek, not what one would expect of an eminent scientist. He met Sheldon Cooper in one episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and told him he had made a mistake in his mathematical calculations much to Sheldon’s consternation but he did allow Sheldon to win at Scrabble another time. A sense of humour is a great thing. It can show, I think, an energy and enjoyment for life. One of Hawking’s obituaries talked of this energy and sense of purpose and how as a young man he declared: ‘Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research’.
Like many scientists he was not religious and considered himself an atheist. He was not, however, anti-religious or held religious people in disregard. He was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science and was aware of the contribution religious people, such as the Belgian priest George le Maitre, had made to science. He said of himself: ‘We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is; there is no God. No one created our universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.’
I often think that when scientists like Hawking reject God they are rejecting ideas of God as an agent interfering and controlling reality - which even some religious people question now- a- days. Many would describe God more in terms of the Ground of Our Being which might make more sense to science and at least open possibilities for dialogue. However, no matter what Hawking thought of God I would consider him as something of a mystic. He was struck by the wonder of life and the cosmos, he was led to seek for truth and explore the mystery of it all, he sought to express this in the best language possible, always open to the possibility of new understandings. To me this is not too far from the journey that serious religious and spiritual seekers are on .
Above all Stephen Hawking loved this universe and felt keenly its destruction and contamination, its abuse by those of us who depend on it for life and existence. He felt our world was in danger and that escaping from it to other planets might be the only way to preserve our species. This might well be the case and time will tell but he also had good advice on how to live in the present - advice that we would be wise to take seriously :
‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.
Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.
If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don't throw it away.’