Much like the Stephen Hawking hologram that was beamed during Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the eerie timbre of his computer-generated voice, activated by his cheek muscle, the only working muscle in his body, Hawking has transcended his human persona or envelope to appear almost disembodied.
Some may call him an example of the “supramental” human being, existing as pure mind, or pure spirit — or both, depending on your point of view. With his increasingly harrowed and bundled up body, slumped in a wheelchair, no doubt one of the most highly calibrated custom-made ones, and his brain able to create a template that would fit the “many histories” of what we call our universe, he would be said to embody the famous Hayavadana conundrum — is it the body or the mind that defines a human being?
For Hawking, there would be no such dichotomy. For, as he wrote in his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time, he was seeking a unified theory that was nothing less than a resolution to the existential question that has eluded the human mind. Or to use his own words, “But ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today, we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less that a complete description of the universe we live in.”
That Hawking could be very much a full-blooded physical being is, of course, what made his story so enticing in the first place. It’s been brought to life in the 2014 film, The Theory of Everything, made with Eddie Redmayne in the lead role. That he was primed for an academic career may have been ordained. His family moved to Oxford during World War II. His father was a research biologist.
As a young man, Hawking rode horses, went rowing and was about to embark on an academic career at Cambridge and marriage in 1964 to his first wife Jane, when the couple were informed that he had a particularly virulent form of what was called motor neuron disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Many years later, Hawking was prone to announce through his synthesizer that he would probably have been consumed by “anomie”, the fabled 20th century malaise of being bored too much of the good life, if he had not been diagnosed with his debilitating illness. His wife Jane was certainly an equal partner in those early years when, despite Hawking’s rapid physical deterioration but increasing worldwide acclaim, they also managed to have three children.
The superstardom not only brought Hawking the kind of public acclaim that had people thronging to his public performances on stage and in the media — there were inclusions in a Pink Floyd album for instance called Keep Talking, a cameo role in a Simpsons cartoon clip, where Hawking’s politely asks Homer whether he might use his doughnut as a working model for a unified universe theory. It also brought for him a much-publicised divorce from his wife and marriage to a young woman, who had been recruited as a nurse. Many years later into the marriage and subsequent divorce, there were tabloid level exposes of how the many bruises on Hawking’s body may have been caused by physical abuse from persons close to him. These were subsequently explained as having been caused by his own impatience at driving his motorised wheelchair beyond permissible limits and crashing into furniture, and sometimes over the toes of less-than-attentive students. Like any rock star, Hawking could obviously also have his off days.
As Richard Feynman (1918-1988), an American physicist and fellow traveller in the realms of quantum physics, once observed, “Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground. But those of us who are not that tall have to choose!” Hawking did not even have the luxury of choosing where to plant his feet.
What he did, instead, was far more valiant. His extraordinary mind ranged back into time into the beginning of the Universe, the big bang theory as it was known, and confronted that staple of science fiction — the property of black holes, matter so dense that nothing it was believed came out of it, not even light. Using his understanding of quantum mechanics, Hawking was able to show that there were “leaks” — small bursts of energy particles — that form outside the black hole. He is credited to have worked with another famous British physicist Roger Penrose.
Feynman’s idea of “multiple histories”, which implied that quantum mechanics could be applied to finding a theory that would explain the working of the entire universe, was something that Hawking sought to explain with his general theory of everything — maybe even the mind of God.
In 2001, Hawking launched a second bestseller — The Universe in a Nutshell. Like the first one, it was most often said that everyone bought the book but never got round to reading it.
Space was the final frontier that Hawking hoped to decode. He believed in the future of inter-galactic travel. Maybe, even a time when there would be no singularities of body and mind, and the soul — whatever we mean by that — would be united with its essence.
Stephen Hawking, traveller in many worlds, may you keep shining.
Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer and critic.