On all the mainstream media and on social media there are tributes to the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking who died today.
By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
His book “A Brief History of Time” is estimated to be the best-selling science book in history (and the least finished best seller) and he has been celebrated enough to have film biography and to appear in an episode of the Simpsons, either of which could be regarded as the symbol that he was the breakout scientist of the past century, crossing from academia to cultural icon.
I am sure that anyone who has been a physicist, even briefly, feels some reflected warmth today. I am one such, since graduation in 1983 I can claim “I am a physicist”, and even more so I took one of the most theoretical courses on offer, studying the inner workings of the atom and the grand scale of cosmology, Hawking’s subjects. Buried deep in some boxes in our basement are a copy of Stephen Hawking’s book, a few text books from the 1980s and some of my hand-written exercise books in which the theorems of Einstein and Schrödinger are recorded. Very occasionally I open a box or a book and am a little bit in awe of my younger self, because apparently I understood some of the gibberish I see today.
However that is nothing to the awe we should feel about people at Hawking’s level. If I am really honest the work I see in those old exercise books was already leaving me behind during those undergraduate years. I was well qualified for geekdom – physically gawky, passion for science fiction, top school grades in maths and sciences. But while I grasp the principles of the theories I can confess that somewhere in the early stages of studying special relativity or solid-state physics I realised I was being left behind, just as surely as a strong cyclist disappears up the mountain and leaves me plodding along.
From proximity I know how good the best of my contemporaries were, the ones that became academics or professional scientists. And then I can visualise the brilliant minds, the thought leaders who should be feted as much as world class athletes, artists or authors. And just above the champions – an occasional genius, which Hawking undoubtedly was. It is suggested that the physical limitations of his motor neurone disease forced him to think more structurally and with more clarity that those who work the mathematical proofs line by line.
I wish I had tutors with his ability to cut through the mess and explain to me what I was seeing with the clarity of his recorded lectures, because somewhere in those years of study I worked out that I was out of love with theoretical science and what actually excited me was the imprecise, turbulent world of people, not the inner workings of the atom. But I retain a slightly wistful sense of attachment to the world of physics, and today I have smiled a lot at the tributes to Hawking, our champion.