In the summer of 1993, I was in England, playing the role of student at the University of Cambridge. I lived in one of the historic colleges, I punted the Cam, I rode a bicycle through the grassy parkland known as The Backs, and of course, I downed quite a few pints of Guinness in smoky waterside pubs. But there was one quintessential Cambridge experience I never managed to check off my list: meeting Professor Stephen Hawking. He evidently lived somewhere near Selwyn College, my home-away-from-home for the duration of the International Summer School program, because several of my housemates reported encountering him on the street. But I never did. Not once during the month I was there did I so much as catch a glimpse of the famous physicist.
I’ll be honest, my desire to cross paths with him was, in part, simply because he was a celebrity. Hawking had been a household name for several years at that point, ever since the publicity around his bestselling book A Brief History of Time had made his face and his Cylon-like electronic voice as familiar as any movie star’s. But that wasn’t the only reason why I felt drawn to him.
The bigger piece of the puzzle is a little difficult to explain, or perhaps it’s only difficult for me to talk about. You see, the illness that Hawking suffered from, the thing that put him in that wheelchair and took away his natural speech, was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s the same degenerative nerve disorder that took the life of my dad’s brother. (He died, coincidentally, around the same time that A Brief History was published.) But while my uncle Lou lasted only two years after his diagnosis — entirely typical for ALS patients — Hawking lived with it for 55 years. Somehow, his body tamed the demon that killed my uncle. And that’s always fascinated me. I saw Louie every time I looked at Hawking: the withered body, the slumped head, the spastic flicker of a smile, even the sheen of drool around his mouth… the exact same effects that ALS had had on my uncle. Except… while my uncle died, Hawking lived. Some people might have felt resentment toward Hawking because of that; I never did, at least not that I can recall now. But I did feel a weird sense of connection with him. This man from an entirely different background, who would have had nothing in common with my blue-collar family, nevertheless felt like some kind of kin. And I wanted to meet him. I have no idea what I would’ve said to him if I had, but that was beside the point. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
A few years after my Cambridge sojourn, Hawking came to Salt Lake City to deliver a lecture. I attended, of course; I think half the valley’s population was there. It was held not in a lecture hall or even an auditorium, but in a sports arena. The title was something along the lines of “Does God Play Dice with the Universe?,” and I won’t pretend that I understood much of it. But again, that wasn’t the point. The point was to be in the same space with him, and to watch him. He didn’t move much, and of course his synthetic voice was essentially prerecorded. And yet he was compelling, even charismatic, in his stillness. I learned this week that an old girlfriend of mine met him after the lecture; another near-miss for me, like something out of a farce where the characters keep going through opposite doorways and around the same pillar.
Hawking probably would’ve enjoyed that image. By all accounts, he had a mischievous sense of humor, which he displayed in numerous TV cameos, starting with the memorable poker game he played with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in a holodeck fantasy on Star Trek: The Next Generation; through appearances in cartoon form on The Simpsons and Futurama; and finally the no-less-than seven guest shots he’s done for The Big Bang Theory. I loved these latter appearances especially. It cracked me up whenever Hawking would zing a one-liner past the uptight Sheldon Cooper and then flash an enormous grin of satisfaction. And yet… even when Hawking was smiling, I could see something in his eyes, the same haunted look I remember in my uncle Louie’s eyes. Maybe it was just my imagination, a projection of old hurts brought to the surface by Hawking’s reminding me of an ordeal I’ve never really gotten past. Perhaps it was a trick of the disease, some kind of physiological change wrought by ALS that suggests a particular emotional state that may or may not have been true. Or maybe, just maybe… in spite of all the things he accomplished with his mind, all the worldly success and fame, maybe there was still a part of Stephen Hawking that was beating against the iron cage of his own wasted body.
You’ve no doubt heard by now that Hawking died early Wednesday morning at his home in Cambridge. He was 76. Against all the odds, he lived out a normal lifespan in spite of having a far-from-normal life. Professor Hawking did not believe in God or an afterlife, and I won’t disrespect him with any well-intentioned sentiments to the contrary. The truth is, I’m not so sure about those things myself. But I will say that even if his actual consciousness dissolved like dew in the morning sunlight, at least some bit of that enormous intellect endures in his books, and more importantly in his work that scientists to come will build upon.
I never met Stephen Hawking, as I once hoped to do. But I guess it’s about time I got around to reading A Brief History of Time…