The world lost a genius when Stephen Hawking died on March 14, at the age of 76. Amazingly the theoretical physicist, cosmologist and mathematician, who achieved rock star status, lived 53 years longer than the two years doctors predicted in 1963, an accomplishment that was as extraordinary as his mind.
Most people are diagnosed with the disease from which he suffered between 40 and 70 years old. Hawking was 21 when he found out he had a rare, early-onset form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that would rob him of the ability to walk, talk, swallow and eventually breathe, yet not affect his thoughts, which he would be unable to communicate to others.
Hawking spent most of his life in a wheelchair, but he was able to communicate with the aid of a computer that used a speech-generating device.
Despite the terrifying and horrific prognosis, Hawking’s professional life was quite productive. As he put it, he studied the marriage between space and time. He made a name for himself advancing the understanding of black holes, and how gravitational physics and quantum physics fit together.
His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, which explains to readers with no knowledge of scientific theories, the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the universe. The book sold more than 10 million copies.
Hawking told The New York Times, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.
“My advice to other disabled people is to concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”
In 2014, the film about Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything, received five Academy Award nominations and others from the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, etc.
Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking at various stages of his life. And Felicity Jones, who played Jane Wilde, a fellow Cambridge student who fell in love with Hawking and married him in 1965 despite his illness, earned an Oscar and BAFTA nomination.
Stephen and Jane Hawking had three children: Robert (1967), Lucy (1970), and Timothy (1979). Jane Hawking said that life was much more difficult than the movie showed. She felt increasingly isolated, overwrought and depressed.
Ironically, it was her Christian faith that gave her the strength to stay with her husband, who, to her dismay, was an atheist. According to Hawking, her husband became her private black hole, sucking in every ounce of her energy. Despite the enormous strain, challenges and pressure, the couple stayed together until 1990, but then divorced in 1995.
That same year, Hawking married Elaine Mason, a nurse and one of his caretakers, who left her husband, David, after 15 years, and their two sons. It was not a kind way to thank the man who had developed the speech synthesizer that gave Hawking a voice and changed his life.
During the 11 years they were married, Hawking sustained many mysterious injuries that caused the Cambridge police to investigate allegations of abuse. Despite the concerns and testimony of a number of people close to Hawking, like his former assistant who called Hawking’s wife a monster, he continuously denied his wife was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive, so the police could do nothing. In 2006, the couple divorced.
Hawking’s first wife fared better in her 1997 marriage to her current husband, Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Jones, a widowed church choir master, had been an intimate part of the Hawking family for years, helping her care for her disabled husband and raise the couple’s children.
In 1999, she wrote an autobiography about her first marriage that she revised with Hawking in 2007, after he divorced his second wife. Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen became the basis for the film The Theory of Everything.
With the exception of the Nobel Peace Prize, few honors escaped Hawking. He was honored by Queen Elizabeth II; lectured to packed auditoriums around the world; was invited to the White House by then-President Bill Clinton; met Nelson Mandela; was interviewed by comedian-actor Jim Carrey and comic-political commentator John Oliver; appeared on The Simpsons, and became a Simpsons “action figure” that was sold in toy stores.
Hawking had a wicked sense of humor, and he made many cameo appearances in our pop culture.
Hawking was a complex person, who also was called a brittle, angry combatant that used the limited means at his disposal to diminish others.
No one is perfect. In life, Hawking inspired us with his courage. Perhaps now that he is part of the cosmos that he spent so many years studying, we can learn something by asking ourselves a few questions.
What do we value most? Good health, fame, fortune, good looks, intelligence? Do we appreciate the gifts we have, or do we complain about what we don’t have? Are we making the most of every day?
As Hawking once said, “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.” That’s a brilliant assessment.