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R.I.P. Stephen Hawking, and what he teaches us about the little things rather than the big

14 Mar

Stephen_Hawking_picIt’s sad to hear of the death of Stephen Hawking, but how extraordinary that he lived to the age of 76: a testament to his strength of will. In 1963, when diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, he was given just a handful of years to live.

I met Stephen Hawking once, on the set of Errol Morris’s documentary about him. This was in 1991, when Eddie Redmayne, who would later win an Oscar for playing him in A Theory of Everything, was not yet 10. What struck me most was that however much Hawking’s mind was focused on the great mysteries of the universe, he still made time for the little things in life. Though he could “speak” only by laboriously tapping out the letters one by one by twitching one finger on a toggle of his wheelchair, he would still say “please” and “thank you” to the assistants who helped him. That’s more than can be said of many able-bodied stars I have seen on film sets.

No one who ponders such things can fail to reel in terror at the thought that the universe is so vast and its epochs so long, while we are but a mote in the blink of a cosmic eye. Hawking knew this better than anyone. But he knew, too, that the reaction to this should not be to despair at our unimportance and impermanence, but to seize every precious moment and savour the warmth of every human interaction as though it was your last. I found his example inspiring, then and now.

One thought haunted me for years after my encounter with Hawking. Here he was, wrestling within his planet-sized brain with the problem of uniting conventional physics with quantum physics – the Grand Unified Theory. What if his disease progressed, and he became unable to communicate at all? What if he discovered the ultimate secret of the universe but, unable to move or speak, trapped within a failing human husk, he could not communicate this to the outside world?

By the time of his death, the only muscle left in his body that he could consciously move was a tiny twitch in his cheek. It was still enough to send signals to his computer – but for how much longer?

So farewell and R.I.P., Stephen Hawking. And if the theory in the final chapters of his bestselling book A Brief History of Time prove correct, and the universe ends in a Big Crunch after which time winds backwards all the way back to the Big Bang again in an endlessly recurring cycle, then he and I will meet again, in a billion billion years.

Hawking will have blinked into life and consciousness as an old man in a wheelchair, trapped in a body which could twitch only one cheek muscle. He would then have slowly recovered the use of certain muscles until he could move his fingers; appeared (talking backwards) in episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Simpsons and Futurama; and then we would meet as he reversed his chair towards me on a film stage.

The next year he would start to live with the love of his life. The relationship would at first be fractious and bitter, but would grow more loving with time. Their children would get younger and cuter until they disappeared with a gurgle and a giggle back into their mother’s womb. And Hawking himself would get stronger and more mobile, eventually stepping up from his wheelchair to stand proudly at the altar with his bride.