Written By: Maj Gen Samrez Salik
'99 percent of humans take birth, eat, sleep, produce children and die. Only 1 percent contribute towards humanity'.
Stephen Hawking who passed away recently on March 14, 2018 (the day also known as Pi Day in the world of mathematics) was amongst the one percent who lived to contribute towards the well-being of humankind. He was regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. He contributed tremendously as a cosmologist, an author and Director of Research at the Centre of Theoretical Cosmology of Cambridge University. In his illustrious career, for 30 years he held the coveted position of Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics in University of Cambridge, a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac. He was conferred with eighteen top research awards from 1966 to 2015. Although he regretted not getting the Nobel Prize, as he himself said, ‘I think most theoretical physicists would agree that my prediction of quantum emissions from black holes is correct, though it has so far not earned me a Nobel Prize because it is very difficult to verify it experimentally’. He has been a rare combination of physical disability and mental brilliance as he was called a disabled genius.
He was born in Oxford on January 8, 1942 (exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo) in an erudite family of UK, though not financially well off. His ancestors had couple of bouts of bankruptcy which compelled his father for extra toil to support his parents. His childhood memories included complaining to his parents that the teachers were not teaching him anything, his love for the toys especially infatuation for an electric train and his inquisitiveness about how things worked for which he would take them apart and was not good at putting them back together again. At 10, he qualified eleven-plus intelligence exam meant to sort out children suited for academic education. At 13 his father expected him to enter Westminster School for which he had to win scholarship as his parents could not afford it. In 1959, at young age of 17, he managed to fulfil his father’s desire by entering Oxford University. On vacations following his graduation, he travelled to Turkey and Iran. In Iran he had a narrow escape of life once caught in Buin Zahra earthquake of 7.1 magnitude. In 1962, he entered Cambridge University for his masters and PhD. Besides his amazing contributions in the field of astronomy and mathematics he has left certain lessons for the mortal humans.
While at Oxford, at the age of 20, he started becoming clumsy in his movements i.e., tumbling here and there and unable to perform routine functions of neuromuscular coordination. He was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Motor Neuron Disease (known in U.S. as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis,ALS). His muscles were wearing down. Doctors suggested that he may not survive for more than couple of years. He described these agonizing moments in his memoir, ‘My dreams at that time, however, were rather disturbed….shortly after I came out from hospital, I dreamed that I was going to be executed. I suddenly realized that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I was reprieved. Another dream I had several times was that I would sacrifice my life to save others. After all, if I was going to die anyway, I might as well do something good’. He and his family were devastated by this crushing reality. No one knew at that time how this young man would defy death and become one of greatest minds of his time.
An ordinary mortal will give up on everything and start winding up for life hereafter. But this brilliant mind took a different course. Despite the disease, he got back to his research at Cambridge. He married and had three children. He chose to rise as the greatest physicist. His works included research on Gravitational Waves, the Big Bang, History of time, black holes, Theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory. I was introduced to him in 1986 through his phenomenal book, “A Brief history of Time: From Big Bang to Black Holes,” to which I was drawn due to my interest in black holes. The book was published in 1982, which became an international bestseller and stayed on Sunday Times bestseller list for 237 weeks. In his life time, he yearned for a unified theory through which he believed we would really know the mind of God regarding creation of the universe. He worked a lot on possibility of travelling back in time. He finally concluded that it may never be possible to go back in time. His other books included, Black Holes and the Baby Universe, The Universe in a Nutshell and the Grand Design.
In his professional career, he was such a spirited and lively man that most of the times he ran into bets with his colleagues on theoretical issues. His professional journey was by no means free of troubles. Two-thirds of his life was spent on a wheel chair. In 1979, once he was 37, his wife felt convinced that he was going to die very soon, so she desired to marry another person who would support her and the children once he was gone. The great man did not object to it. Many a times he had a narrow miss with death. He had choking fits, attacks of pneumonia, low oxygen levels, went on ventilators, and had tracheotomy. One odd time doctors proclaimed him dead and wanted to remove his ventilator, but his wife refused, and he bounced back. His speech had become slurred and tracheotomy had removed his ability to speak altogether. He could only communicate with special computers, equalizers, synthesizers and with his eye lid gestures–the only motor function which stayed on. He was kept on life support medical interventions, but his outstanding mind was never there to give in. On divorcing his first wife, he married a nurse and when that marriage also ended in a divorce in 2007, from thereon he lived alone with a housekeeper.
Super performance of a mind afflicted with debilitating and crippling physical disabilities is indeed outlandish. He led an accomplished life. He married twice, had three well accomplished children and had a successful scientific career. He said that he had a satisfying and fulfilling life. Hawking travelled extensively including seven times to the former Soviet Union, six times to Japan, three times to China, every continent including Antarctica, with the exception of Australia. He met Presidents of South Korea, China, India, Ireland, Chile and the U.S. He had been under the sea in a submarine and up in a hot air balloon and a zero-gravity flight. His early works showed that classical general relativity broke down at singularities in the Big Bang and black holes. Hawking’s later work had shown how quantum theory could predict what happened at the beginning and the end of time. He said in his memoir, ‘It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I am happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe’.
Stephen Hawking exemplified that mind is the real power a human is endowed with by providence. With crippling Motor Neuron disease, he not only defied death for over 55 years but also optimally utilized outstanding power of his mind. The usual dictum, 'healthy body carries healthy mind' may be rephrased as, 'a strong mind can take care of a weak body'. His happiness and satisfaction with life, notwithstanding his crippling disease, is amazing; what an epitome of gratefulness! Towards the end of his memoir he calls his disability as an asset because he could focus on research without wasting time elsewhere. What a positivity! He stated that disabled people should concentrate on things that their disabilities don't prevent them from doing and not to regret those they cannot do. What a powerful message! All these aspects serve as big lessons for us. We are ought to be grateful for whatever we are blessed with, need to be positive and rely on the power of our mind.
The writer is present DG ISSRA, National Defence University (NDU).