Stephen Hawking: A Disembodied Traveler

Stephen Hawking meets with President Barack Obama in 2009 before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photo by Pete Souza.

For most of his life, Stephen Hawking lived in the confining space of his wheelchair and never heard his real voice.

The renowned physicist, scholar and author made the most difficult cosmological concepts — black holes, quantum physics, string theory and others — if not entirely understandable, at least informally conversational for mass audiences.

Hawking succumbed March 14 to his long-time nemesis, which he called, according to reports, “that terrible thing,” the motor neuron disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, with which he was diagnosed in the 1960s while at Oxford. At the time, he was told he had only two years two live, a pronouncement which led him to fall into a heavy depression.

Yet, here he was, and there he went — and here was everything in between then and now. He died at the age of 76.

Reading about him as a man who shares a similar lifespan so far, I realized that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. I am not tempted to run out and fill out my knowledge of quantum physics or black holes (which is limited to their appearances in several episodes of “Star Trek” and films), but I am awed by the life experiences, that embracing spirit of his.

With the help of his first wife Jane Wilde, a fellow student he met at Cambridge — they were married in 1965 and had three children before splitting up and divorcing in 1995 — he began the most active phase of his thinking, writing and fame. Their courtship and marriage was chronicled in a recent film “The Theory of Everything,” for which Eddie Redmayne won a Best Actor Award.

That particular theory was something Hawking pursued, along with a fascination with black holes, the great devourers of the universe, variations on Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. I admit to getting lost in the theoretical thickets of his thinking, although I imagine a reading of “A Brief History of Time” might lighten the load.

Hawking was also involved in a hot physics debate over black holes, specifically whether they did or did not allow their contents to spill out. One faction — Hawking’s — posited that they did; another group of physicists said they did not, sort of a whatever-goes-into-black-holes-stays-in-black-holes idea. The debate has never been fully resolved. Back to the books.

What’s amazing to many is how Hawking — disembodied in a way — traveled the universe, imagined it not being there at all, then (big bang time) imagined it aborn and suggested its expansion or alternative forms of it.

Some people called him a disabled genius. Hawking said he wasn’t a genius but he was disabled. He was a genius, and a genius at always exploring and sharing the results of his exploration.

More than anything, you can see a particular kind of genius, the kind that’s hardly remote but right in front of you. He was famous — for his books, his knowledge, his situation and his energy. And he liked the fame, even the gossip about his personal life (his second wife was a nurse who had been his caregiver, in a marriage described by many as tempestuous).

His images and popularity popped into mainstream fame. He had a role in “Star Trek” and “The Simpsons” (where he did not quite embrace Homer’s idea about a donut universe), and there was a Hawking character — down to the physical looks — on an episode of “Law and Order,” in which he was investigated for murder. Goren vs. Stephen … wow!

There’s also a YouTube episode of an interview with British comedian John Oliver that offers an example of his often sly humor. Describing his computerized voice, he says he’s fond of it, except that sometimes it drops into an American accent.

Hawking’s mind lived in the universe, as much as he could comprehend and imagine, the extent of which was enormous. But, everything else being said and seen, he lived life, its own self, fully. He was after all father, son and grandfather, and traveler, philosopher and prophet, predicting and suggesting that humans better get further into space travel (and probably not as a space force), because earth may not always be inhabitable.

While Hawking explored life to the fullest, hearing all the sounds the world can offer (including babies in the night), we are only at the cusp, even with his shared knowledge. Time to hit the books — by Stephen Hawking.

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