Jayne Dowle: Stephen Hawking boldly went where no one had ever gone before

Professor Stephen Hawking during a visit to the Science Museum.
Professor Stephen Hawking during a visit to the Science Museum.
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I’M looking out of my window at the universe and thinking about how Stephen Hawking brought its mystery and potential into the minds of ordinary people.

The hugely popular physicist and cosmologist, whose death has been announced, not only created world-altering theories about how our solar system works, but taught us all to question life itself.

Not just the big questions regarding black holes, dark matter and the theory of time, but about how our actual time on this planet counts.

His public persona was characterised by his appearance, his electric wheelchair and the speech synthesiser he relied on to communicate.

Yet his disabilities did not define him. When he developed a form of motor neurone disease as a young man, doctors told him that he had just two years to live.

That he passed away at the age of 76 proves not only that science can be wrong, but even the most painful and life-limiting of conditions can be overcome.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21,” he once said. “Everything since then has been a bonus.”

His approach was pragmatic – he supported assisted dying for terminally-ill disabled people – and he raised the bar in terms of adaptive technology to help those others with speech and mobility conditions to live a decent, functioning life.

And his three adult children, now with children of their own, are proof that disability does not have to stand in the way.

Opinion will remain divided over his attitude to illness. He famously refused to acknowledge fully its repercussions. This obdurance apparently led to difficulties with those obliged to care for him, particularly his first wife, Jane, whose bitter memoir, Travelling to Infinity, was the basis of the 2014 film, The Theory of Everything, which chronicled the beginning of Hawking’s stellar rise to fame and starred Eddie Redmayne.

And, of course, he made science itself entertaining. Not just through the various television series he made and his appearances on documentaries and discussion programmes – where his views on women could be startlingly reactionary – but in paving the way for younger media-friendly scientists such as Oldham-born Professor Brian Cox, who tweeted that “there are many more scientists because of him”.

His public persona is well-documented, the honorary degrees, the international prizes for science. Yet it’s not widely known that when he took his undergraduate degree in natural science, at University College, Oxford, he did not sail through his studies to an automatic First. As a borderline candidate, he had to undergo a rigorous viva examination by eminent academics to prove himself.

This should be remembered. He acknowledged imperfection. And he never pretended to have all the answers – pointing out that the known universe is expanding in a snowball effect to an unknown conclusion. However, he showed humans the tools we need to work towards a series of logical possibilities.

Above all, I think he took the fear out of science. His instantly-recognisable voice was a powerful tool in this. The synthesiser removed all the usual barriers of social class and education associated with “clever people”. Youngsters especially, responded to the short, sharp sentences he used to communicate; I’d wager that my teenage son and his friends couldn’t name one other world-famous physicist.

And his sense of humour was sharp. He made guest appearances on cult American TV shows The Simpsons and Futurama, starred alongside David Walliams and Matt Lucas on Little Britain and played poker with Einstein and Newton on Star Trek: The Next Generation. His critics accused him of narcissism because he happily courted publicity, yet his ability to shoulder jokes at his own expense reminded us all not to take ourselves too seriously.

And, yes, some of us might not have made it to the end of his multi-million selling 1988 book The Brief History of Time, but its ideas have helped to form our popular understanding of space.

Countless Hollywood sci-fi films and time-travelling episodes of Doctor Who owe their existence to his theories, and the theories which have followed his theories.

From him, we learned that human life is fragile and transitory against the backdrop of time and space. Perhaps we don’t always acknowledge it as such, but this wider understanding helps us to come to terms with some of the terrible conflicts which humans inflict upon each other on Earth.

His was, after all, a very secular kind of belief. There were never any comfortable solutions with Hawking. However, in his avowed atheism, he showed us how to construct an argument and stick to it.

If you look out at the universe tonight, don’t imagine him as a star; he would have told you to stop indulging in romantic nonsense.

Instead, take his own careful words as his obituary: “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.”

Professor Stephen Hawking was not afraid of the dark. In fact, it is probably fair to say that he was not afraid of anything.