Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was handed to me by my calculus teacher when I was fourteen. She told me to read it and to drop by when I had and we could chat about it. I had a habit of latching on to teachers in junior high and high school, ones with whom I could linger after class and talk to about their subjects. Math, physics, especially the literature teachers. I was a weird kid before I found my place.
A Brief History of Time was staggering to me. I’d devoured sci-fi by the shelf, I’d read a smattering of non-fiction science, but I’d never read science that sang like this. It made the universe huge and mysterious, but was wrapped up in a comforting confidence that it was something we could understand. That we could stretch our minds and imagine things impossible to our mundane senses, dimensions beyond three, time as space, a warping of reality at the limits of speed. I discovered Sagan later, Feynman and Tyson, but Hawking was the first. He was, for me at least, the first ambassador to that world where science was awe-inspiring and adventurous. Where there was beauty in math and poetry in theories.
He was a genius, a titan who shifted the course of physics. He connected the theories of gravity and quantum mechanics, and wrote of the radiation that bears his name, blasting out from black holes around the universe.
And he did it while the universe seemed to conspire against his observation of it. He fought, again and again, to keep being heard.
Given two years to live he took half a century instead. Forced into a wheelchair, he’d accidentally intentionally run over the toes of anyone he didn’t like, including Prince Charles and vocally regretting never getting to do the same to Margaret Thatcher. His voice cut out of him by pneumonia, he made the synthesizer his voice so thoroughly that the man without a voice had one of the most recognized voices in the world. Children similarly afflicted to this day demand that their synthesizer voice sounds like Hawking’s. When muscle degeneration stole his ability to type, he instead spoke and wrote through a sensor that detected the flexing of a single muscle in his mouth. He wrote entire books with the relentless twitch of that single muscle in his cheek.
When asked about death, he said: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” He has returned to that darkness now, and our world is dimmer for it, at least for the moment.
Some men fight overwhelming odds, some teach us how to hear the songs of the stars. Some do both.