Stephen Hawk­ing – a mind with a mis­sion

The Amherst News - - OP-ED - Alan Wal­ter Alan Wal­ter is a re­tired pro­fes­sional en­gi­neer liv­ing in Ox­ford. He was born in Wales and worked in Hal­i­fax. He spends much of his time in Ox­ford, where he op­er­ates a small farm. He can be reached at alan­wal­

How did the uni­verse come into be­ing?

Why are we here?

And where are we head­ing? Stephen Hawk­ing was on a mis­sion to an­swer those ques­tions. But he was also in a race against time, trapped in a body rav­aged by Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease.

How­ever, given just two years to live when first di­ag­nosed, Stephen Hawk­ing man­aged to ex­tend his life-span to 76, when he died this month in Cam­bridge, Eng­land.

Hawk­ing also stretched the lim­its of the hu­man mind to know what may well be the un­know­able; namely the ori­gins and fu­ture of our uni­verse.

The mid-to-late 1970s was a pe­riod of grow­ing re­search into “black holes” and the role they play in the for­ma­tion of new star sys­tems in the uni­verse.

Hawk­ing re­ceived in­creas­ing aca­demic recog­ni­tion for his lead­ing work in this field, in­clud­ing be­ing hon­oured by Barack Obama with the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom, the high­est civil­ian award in the United States.

How­ever, his many awards were no help to Hawk­ing’s fi­nan­cial sta­tus, and his need to fi­nance his three chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion and home ex­penses, so he de­cided to write a book about the uni­verse that would be ac­ces­si­ble to the gen­eral pub­lic.

This book, “A Brief His­tory of Time” ap­peared on the U.K. Sun­day Times best-seller list for a record-break­ing 237 weeks, such was his pop­u­lar ap­peal.

All this was part of his mis­sion in life, but what cap­tured the re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion of the world was the phys­i­cal ad­ver­si­ties he suf­fered which wors­ened as time went on.

It was in the mid­dle of his stud­ies at Cam­bridge Univer­sity that he was first di­ag­nosed with a slow-pro­gress­ing form of “mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease”, also known as Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease.

But, even af­ter even­tu­ally los­ing his speech, and near-to­tal bod­ily paral­y­sis, he was still able to com­mu­ni­cate through a “speech-gen­er­at­ing de­vice”, op­er­ated by a sim­ple hand-held switch, and even­tu­ally by one of his cheek mus­cles that still worked.

It’s fair to say that for Hawk­ing the crit­i­cal body or­gans that ex­tended his life, and aided his mis­sion, were in his car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem that sup­plied the needed oxy­genated blood to his mind, un­til the day he passed away.

His per­sona could truly be de­scribed as “a mind with a mis­sion”, but there are lessons we can learn from Hawk­ing’s re­mark­able life that would serve us well as we meet our own chal­lenges.

Firstly, in spite of his phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, he man­aged to main­tain a pos­i­tive out­look on life, in­clud­ing a healthy sense of hu­mour.

Even in his fi­nal years he could show a twin­kle in his eyes, and what looked like a smile on his puck­ish face, when some­thing tick­led his fancy.

He also rel­ished the oc­ca­sional guest ap­pear­ance in the pop­u­lar me­dia such as The Big Bang The­ory, Star Trek, and The Simp­sons.

Con­tribut­ing to his pos­i­tive out­look was a strong sense of pur­pose that car­ried him through the af­flic­tions he suf­fered.

While we can’t hope to take on the chal­lenges on the scale that he did in his life, for us to reg­u­larly have some­thing worth­while to tackle and suc­ceed at, can have a sat­is­fy­ing pos­i­tive af­fect on our own lives.

We also learned from Hawk­ing of the rel­a­tive im­por­tance of mind over body in our daily lives.

In his fi­nal years his body was an un­sightly, fail­ing ves­sel that he could just as well have done with­out, if not for the needs of his brain.

Quite a con­trast to many lives where at­ten­tion is lav­ished on phys­i­cal ap­pear­ances, while brains de­te­ri­o­rate from what has been de­scribed as “amus­ing our­selves to death”.

Hawk­ing’s re­mains are to be buried at West­min­ster Abbey, near those of Sir Isaac New­ton and Charles Dar­win, two other gi­ants of the sci­en­tific world.

I’m sure that he was told of this honor be­fore­hand, but he prob­a­bly val­ued his as­so­ci­a­tion with the sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tions of these he­roes more than the plac­ing of his own re­mains close to theirs.

His dis­dain of such worldly hon­ours was also re­flected in his re­fusal of a knight­hood some years ago.

I’m sure that he saw the ti­tle of “Sir” Stephen Hawk­ing as bag­gage that would not get him any closer to suc­ceed­ing in his mis­sion.

Al­bert Ein­stein, an­other gi­ant of the sci­en­tific world, dis­played a sim­i­lar at­ti­tude to­wards his own mor­tal re­mains.

While a pathol­o­gist had re­moved his brain for preser­va­tion, Ein­stein’s re­mains were cre­mated, and his ashes were scat­tered at an undis­closed lo­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to his wishes.

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