Pondering the greatest mind of our time
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”—Stephen Hawking
What would it be like, I often wondered when Stephen Hawking said something else that made me think, to be roundly considered by one’s peers to be literally the smartest man alive? What would it be like not merely to be seriously compared to Einstein, but to actually comprehend that great man’s Combined Theory of Relativity, and then expound upon it?
One of the most recognizable beings on the planet, Stephen Hawking died last Wednesday, March 14, having lived to the age of 76 after doctors said he’d be dead by 23. Stricken by a variation of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”) for most of his life, he was unable to move nearly all his muscles and could communicate only through a computer-synthesized voice. He truly manifested the notion of mind over matter, and his passing made me feel as if I had lost a friend I’d never known.
That’s because Stephen Hawking asked some of the same questions that I have in my considerably lesser life. The rather profound difference, of course, is that he also answered some of them.
“I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing,” he once mused.
“What was God doing before the divine creation,” he rhetorically wondered on another.
Me, too, Steverino.
In one of those downright eerie historical serendipities that flavor life with forced wonder, Steven Hawking, who overcame physical devastation to attain the same position (Lucasian professor of mathematics at England’s University of Cambridge) occupied exactly 300 years earlier by Sir Isaac Newton, had been born exactly 300 years to the day from the date of the death of one Galileo.
That’s quite coincidental for a man who did not believe in coincidence.
What he did believe in was science and the power of the human mind, his own most notably. “My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” And so, he set about searching for the theoretical physics equivalent of the Holy Grail, reconciling Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum physics to produce what he termed a “Theory of Everything.”
Among other things, he was to find an exception to a long thought “truth”about black holes — that they aren’t black at all, but can emanate thermal radiation at a subatomic level at their boundaries (what’s now known as “Hawking radiation”), demonstrate through theorem that if relativity is true, the universe must have sprung into existence out of what seemed nothing at a specific moment in the past from a place where gravity had become so strong that space and time are curved beyond recognition — “singularity,” and he even wrote a best-selling book in which he explained some of this in terms that at least smart lay people could possibly understand.
That, boys and girls, is greatness.
And so it is not with surprise, but disappointment that I view so much of the post-Hawking evaluations of Hawking are simplistically based on what he did not believe.
Hawking was also well known for his atheism, and in the wake of his death, the Internet was flooded with memes posted by “Christians” depicting his having a post-life realization of his eternal damnation.
The tackiness of such is rivaled only by its theological hypocrisy. (Cheering another’s perceived ultimate misfortune?)
But it would hardly have bothered Hawking.
“God may exist,” he once wrote, “but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator” — an intellectual position he spent his life proving. He described human beings in terms of living, breathing computers and reasoned “there is no heaven, or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
But the man with the greatest mind of our time, whom some would now define with his lack of faith and views on artificial intelligence (it may do us in) and aliens (if they visit us, the outcome would be like Columbus discovering America “which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”), always took a philosophical sense-of-humor approach to his detractors:
“I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predestined, and that there is nothing we can do to change it, still look before they cross the road.”
Ray Mosby is editor of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.