Stephen Hawking: a brilliant scientist, a flawed man

Stephen Hawking

It was impossible not to be in awe of the British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who, after leading one of the most remarkable lives of the past century, died on March 14 at age 76. Over the course of his decades-long career, Hawking made a long series of earth-shaking discoveries about the nature of the universe; he developed complex and extraordinarily important theories about singularities, black holes, quantum mechanics, and a number of other perplexing aspects of modern science, and he won a long list of major prizes in his field, plus the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, which was presented to him in 2012 by Barack Obama. 

In addition to doing vital scientific work, Hawking was a first-rate and immensely successful popularizer of scientific ideas, writing books like A Brief History of Time (which stayed on the London Times bestseller list for five years after its publication in 1988 and was ultimately translated into more than 35 languages) and giving talks and lectures around the world in which he did his best to explain his complex insights to members of the general public.

The young Hawking

And he did all of this while suffering from one of the most cruelly debilitating disorders known to man, motor neuron disease (also known as amyotropic lateral sclerosis, ALS, and Lou Gehrig’s disease), which caused him to undergo a very public physical deterioration that ultimately resulted in nearly total paralysis. It is impossible to watch the 2014 feature film about his life, The Theory of Everything, in which the young Hawking was played by actor Eddie Redmayne, without feeling extraordinary empathy for Hawking’s suffering and admiration for his courage and tenacity. Expected to die only a few months – or, at most, a couple of years – after his diagnosis at age 21, he ended up defying all expectations, living longer with ALS than anyone ever had before.

With President Obama

Hawking was, in short, an extraordinarily remarkable man in many ways. To quote from President Obama’s comments at the 2012 medal ceremony: “From his wheelchair, he has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and showed us the power of the human spirit.” But there is at least one major blot on his memory. As Judy Siegel-Itzkovich wrote after his death in the Jerusalem Post, he “apparently had a love-hate relationship with Israel – the affection from the 1970s until about a decade ago, and the disaffection more recently.” We will look more closely at this lamentable failing on Thursday. 

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