Netizen 24 ISR: My friend Stephen Hawking: how we studied together for decades

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My friend Stephen Hawking: how we studied together for decades

They studied together, worked together and were great friends.
Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has penned a moving personal paean to his fellow cosmologist and astrophysicist.

This is some of what he has written:

"Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

"He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But, amazingly, he lived on to the age of 76.

"Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He become one of the most famous scientists in the world - acclaimed as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physi cs, for his best-selling books about space, time and the cosmos, and for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

A 1970s picture of Prof Hawking

"Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I'd have given, back in 1964 when Stephen received his 'death sentence', against witnessing this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement sustained for more than 50 years. Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space and time.

"Stephen went to school in St Albans, near London, and then to Oxford University. He was, by all accounts, a 'laid back' undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first class degree in physics, and an 'entry ticket' to a research career in Cambridge.

"Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an in distinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. But in other respects fortune had favoured him. He married a family friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim.

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"The 1960s were an exciting period in astronomy and cosmology: this was the decade when evidence began to emerge for black holes and the big bang. In Cambridge, Stephen joined a lively research group. It was headed by Dennis Sciama, an enthusiastic and effective mentor who urged him to focus on the new mathematical concepts being developed by Roger Penrose, then at London University, which were initiating a renaissance in the study of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Stephen mastered Penrose’s techniques and quickly came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea), along with new arguments that our universe had expanded from a ‘big bang’.

"Stephen was elected to the Royal Society, Britain's main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32. He was by then so frail that most of us suspected that he could scale no further heights. But, for Ste phen, this was still just the beginning. He worked in the same building as I did.

Lord Rees speaking at Prof Hawking's 75th birthday celebration last year

"I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory - the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours - he couldn't even turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he came up with his best-ever idea - encapsulated in an equation that he said he wanted on his memorial stone.

"Cambridge was Stephen’s base throughout his career, and he became a familiar figure navigating his wheelchair around the city's streets. By the end of the 1970s, he had advanced to one of the most distinguished posts in the university - the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, once held by Newton himself. He held this chair with distinction for 30 years; but reached the retiring age in 2009 and thereafter held a special research professorship.

"He travelled widely: he was a specially frequent visitor at Caltech, in Pasadena, California; and at Texas A and M University. He continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe â€" addressing questions like ‘was our big bang the only one?’

He met the Queen Mother in 1992 - and apologised for his American accent

"He had a remarkable ability to figure things out in his head. But latterly he worked with students and colleagues who would write a formula on a blackboard; he would stare at it, and say whether he agreed with it, and perhaps what should come next.

"In 1987, Stephen contracted pn eumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than 10 years since he could write, or even use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him. But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser, with the androidal American accent that has thereafter become his trademark.

"His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so even a sentence took several minutes. He learnt to economise with words. His comments were aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In his later years, he became too weak to control this machine effectively, even via facial mus cles or eye movements, and his communication â€" to his immense frustration â€" became even slower.

"At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book, which he'd hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, who were then of college age. On his recovery from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the US edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers made some errors (a picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. This was the first inkling that the book was destined for runaway success â€" four years on best-seller lists around the world.

2015: with Eddie Redmayne at the British film awards

"The feature film The Theory of Everything (where he was superbly impersonated by Eddie Redmayne, in an Oscar-winn ing performance) portrayed the human story behind his struggle. It surpassed most biopics in representing the main characters so well that they themselves were happy with the portrayal (even though it understandably omitted and conflated key episodes in his scientific life).

"Even before this film, his life and work had featured in movies. In an excellent TV docudrama made in 2004, he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. And in 2012 Cumberbatch spoke his words in a four-part documentary The Grand Design made for the Discovery TV Channel.

"Why did he become such a 'cult figure'? The concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people's imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in (say) genetics rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably wouldn't have achieved the same resonance with a worldwide public. The Theory of Everything conveyed with sensitivity how the need for support (first from a succession of students, but later requiring a team of nurses, strained his marriage to breaking point, especially when augmented be the pressure of his growing celebrity.

"Jane’s book, on which the film is based, chronicles the 25 years during which, with amazing dedication, she underpinned his family life and his career. This is where the film ends. But it left us only half way through Stephen’s adult life. After the split with Jane, Stephen married, in 1995, Elaine Mason, who had been one of his nurses, and whose former husband had designed Stephen's speech synthesiser. But this partnership broke up within a decade.

Arriving at a Cambridge Union Society event in 2006

"He featured in numerous TV programmes; his lectures filled the Albert Hall, and similar venues in the US and Japan. He featured in Star Trek and The Simpsons, and in numerous TV documentaries, as well as advertisements. He lectured at Clinton's White House; he was back there more recently when President Obama presented him with the US Medal of Freedom, a very rare honour for any foreigner â€" and of course just one of the many awards he accumulated over his career (including Companion of Honour from the UK).

"In the summer of 2012, he reached perhaps his largest-ever audience when he had a star role at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics. His 60th birthday celebrations, in January 2002, were a memorable occasion for all of us. Hundreds of leading scientists came from all over the world to honour and celebrate Stephen's discoveries, and to spend a week discussing the latest theories on space, time and the cosmos. But the celebrations weren't just scientific - that wouldn't have been Stephen's style.

He meets the media at Kennedy Space Centre, 2007 (Getty Images)

"Step hen was was far from being the archetype unworldy or nerdish scientist â€" his personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. As well as his extensive travels, he enjoyed trips to theatre or opera. He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions. However, a downside of his iconic status was that his comments attracted exaggerated attention even on topics where he had no special expertise â€" for instance philosophy, or the dangers from aliens or from intelligent machines. And he was sometimes involved in media events where his ‘script’ was written by the promoters of causes about which he may have been ambivalent.

"But there was absolutely no gainsaying his lifelong commitment to campaigns for the disabled, and (just in the last few months) in support of the NHS â€" to which he acknowledged he owed so much. He was always, at the personal level, sensitive to the misfortunes of others. He recorded that, when in hospital soon after his illness was first diagnosed, his depression was lifted when he compared his lot with a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukemia.

"And he was firmly aligned with other political campaigns and causes. When he visited Israel, he insisted on going also to the West Bank. Newspapers in 2006 showed remarkable pictures of him, in his wheelchair, surrounded by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah.

Prof Hawking experiences weightlessness in 2007 (Picture: Zero Gravity Corp)

"Even more astonishing are the pictures of him ‘floating’ in the NASA aircraft (the ‘vomit comet’) that allows passengers to experience weightlessness â€" he was manifestly overjoyed at escaping, albeit briefly, the clutches of the gravitational force he’d studied for decades and which had so cruelly imprisoned his body.

"Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 22. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and his expectations dropped to zero. He himself said that everything that happened since then was a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds - a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination."

Source: Google News

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