08 March 2019
Copyright: Ian Berry/Magnum

Copyright: Ian Berry/Magnum

‘An extraordinary journey.’ That is how I describe my thirty years of acquaintance with and writing about Stephen Hawking. It’s an understatement. 

Stephen liked understatement. ‘The news that I had an incurable disease that was likely to kill me in a few years was a bit of a shock.’ Yes? This sentence comes from a then-unpublished private memoir he gave me when we first met in his office in December 1988. He agreed that afternoon that I should write a book about him and gave me childhood pictures and many pages filled with his memories. He would help me but not control this biography. I would write independently, free to criticize him and mention his flaws. That’s how the journey began. It ended with the last time my husband and I visited him, at a party in his home in July 2017 – though of course we didn’t know that was the end. Since Stephen’s death I’ve written the fifth edition of his biography. It’s felt odd to be working without his input or suggestions, but I’ve had the opportunity to talk with others who knew him well and who hadn’t felt they could discuss their memories or feelings about him while he was alive. My subtitle changed from ‘His Life and Work’ to ‘A Life Well Lived’.   

quote

Some found Stephen intimidating, and he could be, but as early as grad school days colleagues described him as ‘the most fun of all to be around’.

For Stephen, science really was enormous fun. It was at his insistence that my editor allowed me to write a book that was not only good science but also fun to read. Stephen liked my translations of the jargon of physics into plain English. He wanted to share his adventures with everyone, including ‘ordinary people’. (He had a reputation for being self-deprecating, but that could slip.)  

And . . . life was fun. Some found Stephen intimidating, and he could be, but as early as grad school days colleagues described him as ‘the most fun of all to be around’. Who else would have ribbed Intel experts – dedicated to improving the word-prediction in his speech program – by embarrassing them at a public dinner, letting that speech program randomly interject complete non sequiturs, at high volume, during polite conversation?  Who else would have said, when I pointed out (at his invitation) passages in his manuscript of The Universe in a Nutshell that needed simpler explanation, ‘It seems perfectly clear to me’, then give me his cagey grin? Who else would have set off industrial-strength fireworks – rivaling any Guy Fawkes public display – in his tiny Cambridge garden, or risked police investigation by dressing as ‘Pluto, God of the Underworld’ and delivering a lecture for us in the dark lane outside his gate?    

Stephen Hawking

Within his field, Stephen was a different kind of inspiration. Talk with his most eminent younger colleagues. You’ll hear many of them say, ‘I’m where I am today because I read A Brief History of Time when I was a kid’. Talk with contemporaries like CalTech’s Kip Thorne. They’ll tell you that much of the future of Stephen’s field will have its footing in questions that he raised, emerging from his theoretical explorations. Controversies he began (and relished) are going to continue. And by now everyone who has read his obituaries knows that Hawking radiation was the first successful step on the pilgrimage to the Holy Grail of physics, the merger of Einstein’s theories and the theories of quantum mechanics. 

Will tourists in the future pass his stone in Westminster Abbey and wonder who this Hawking was whose ashes are interred near the tomb of Isaac Newton? I doubt it. And, if they ask, well . . . he lived and laughed and survived, fought hard for causes he believed in, and gave us amazing science – with far more grace than most – for seventy-six years.

It has been my privilege to help the world know him better.

Related articles