Oped

Of Stephen Hawking

  • Laymen may not understand what Hawking did for science, but everyone knows that his bestsellers brought science closer
- ABHI SUBEDI

Mar 18, 2018-

I encountered Stephen Hawking in London’s Dillon Book shop one afternoon of June 1988 by sheer coincidence. I had reached Dillon in the final phase of my PhD research desperately looking for books that would show a bridge between theory and poetry because literary criticism and theories had entered a territory of sharing and contestation during that time. Under a British Council grant, I was visiting university libraries, meeting some professors and attending seminars of writers. I saw some young men and women in the bookstore with a man on a very special wheel-chair with various devices attached to it. The young people went around showing books to him. I heard people say he was Stephen Hawking, the great physicist who had already become famous all over the world. His magnum opus A Brief History of Time was published in the same year. But I had not heard about the book, nor did I know whether it had already hit the bookstores. It could be possible that Hawking was visiting the famous bookstore to check about the sale of the book. I bought the same book that he had simplified later in 2005, and read with a great sense of unscientific reverence, but could not understand the argument in its entirety. Story of Time that was sold in millions was not perhaps understood by many who had bought it. But the book did make a difference. 

A scientist who was talking about black holes and bringing out thrilling facts about cosmology did certainly trigger people’s imagination by giving hope that physics, a difficult subject at that, could be written and sold in paperbacks and made a bestseller, which was one great wish of Hawking. To make his wish come to true, he had talked to several publishers who turned him down until his work was finally published and created sensations.

I was looking for theoretical or philosophical books that would unravel some problems in poetry. My quests were not scientific and fact based; they were questions perennially asked but never answered. If anybody finds the final answer to the questions posed by poetry it would be a great farce, and the end of the art. Not finding answers but keeping up the quest is the method of arts and poetry in particular, and literature in general. One question always strikes me—was not Hawking’s quest a search for finality, the ultimate answer to the mystery of the universe, of the cosmic phenomenon? My faith in science veers between fact and poetry.

From derision to acceptance 

After Hawking’s death on March 14 2018, we are inundated with written and audio-visual information about his life and work. With that came some points of discussion regarding Hawking’s faith and his elevation as a cultural icon. Several reports mentioned an interesting coincidence of his birth—he was born 300 years, to the day, after Galileo Galilei died. But a Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University who had taken his retirement in 2009, Hawking was a Galileo of a different order, working in different times. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht ends his play, Life of Galileo, by leaving him torn between his scientific belief and the falsity that he was forced to repeat by the state-sanctioned Inquisition. Stephen Hawking was never forced to say that, behind the mystery of the universe, was God. Like every other physicist, Hawking too was left to tackle the mystery that he had encountered. 

Hawking was neither a rival of God nor a believer. But Galileo and Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) were tried for their scientific astrological beliefs. Bruno was tried by the Inquisition for his heretical ideas and burned at the stake. And as the irony of history would have it, Christ was crucified and Gandhi was shot dead. But the choice that the scientists were given was between faith and heretical ideas. A scientist who opens the universe for his research like Hawking is free to deal with the mystery and find the answer. 

Hawking was one such scientist who became so famous for his ideas and also for his miraculous fight against a motor neurone disease that turned him into a voice that spoke through a machine, which became his surrogate body. But there was no automation working behind the voice and writing. There was a mind, an artist, I would love to say, a poet who saw and contemplated on the cosmological poetry. That is the reason why he had to face this question—‘do you believe in god?’ His answer sounded simple, but he left enough room for imagination, enough space for people to fill up even though he kept repeating that there is no need of god. I would say that it was not god, but poetry, that was the art behind his science, behind the joy of his cosmology. 

Closer to the people

I know my conclusion is not scientific because I am not a science writer. But thousands of people all over the world since yesterday have been wondering, who was this scientist? What did he do for us? The answer may not be simple, but Stephen Hawking’s half understood books and his cosmological theory and anxiety did always seek to bring science closer to the approach of the common people. We also see in Hawking’s life and work, and in the attention he received as a scientist, he was not a cog in the machine of the state. We have not heard about the works, not least the persona of scientists in different countries of the world because they are suppressed by the government machineries. Scientists in democratic societies can project their personas if they wish, but very few are able to become as widely recognised and loved as Stephen Hawking. He did not become so well-known because of his physical state and what he was able to achieve despite that. He has become famous because he brought the complex subject of the cosmology and the physics that he foregrounded as something that could be discussed, approached and put in bestsellers. Hawking gave that confidence and hope for the good future of humanity in this universe, which came from his meditative gaze, poetry and writing.  

Published: 18-03-2018 08:35

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