Hawking Radiates Forever

A far too brief history of time shared on Earth with a great scientist.

Several of my classmates with Dr. Hawking at one of Caltech’s annual banquets

Yesterday, I would have told you that I have complicated thoughts about Dr. Stephen Hawking, a man for whom I’ve cooked dinner, and a man whom I’m quite certain I made no impression upon whatsoever.

He was a star so bright that us little planets could only reflect what he shone out. My complicated thoughts, I realize now that he has passed, were those of one who looks into the sun and discovers it is made of matter just like the rest of us.

Dr. Hawking would visit us at Caltech just about every year that I was there. In alternating years, he would give a public lecture, and in the off years a lecture only for undergraduates. At the undergraduate lectures, he would take questions.

Realize, please, the remarkable effort that it took for Stephen Hawking to answer a question. Imagine writing a 500-word blog post with your nose or your chin. When I met him, Dr. Hawking was using a cheek muscle to control his speech computer. One muscle. He would occasionally blurt out the word “yes” while chewing. Words and letters would scroll across the screen and he could clench the muscle to pick common words or to open a dictionary under that letter, pick the second letter to narrow the list, and so forth. Imagine the time commitment.

Now that you’ve imagined what it’s like to answer a simple question by this system, imagine deciding to answer the questions of a pack of entitled, far too clever teenagers who all imagine they will be the next great scientist…and you, yourself are such a scientist. Each question he answered — submitted in advance and chosen by lottery, or else he would have more questions than the universe has stars — was a gift.

His answers revealed things about him that his books and pop culture appearances never could. He talked to us about a life in science. He ridiculed God — something I found a bit crass, but he wouldn’t be Stephen Hawking without his iconoclastic wit. He told us why, despite his tendency to collide with pedestrians while zipping around campus, he didn’t have his entourage clear a path before him:

I get ten points for an undergrad, fifteen for a grad student, thirty for a professor, and one hundred for the [institute] President.

Dr. Hawking’s sense of humor was no joke. People were not just being polite when they said he was hilarious. Through his electronic voice, he was able to elevate British dry wit beyond anything it had been before.

He also expressed a hope that we would exceed him. This is the most touching thing I can remember about Dr. Hawking. Instead of embracing his greatness — as we would so willingly allow — he noted his assumption that the ones to solve the questions that stumped him could very well be in the audience of undergrads. If there is anything I will take away from my brief brush with him, it is that he had great hope for humanity’s future scientists.

His annual visit brought with it the shining moment for one of Caltech’s most popular classes. No, not physics. “Cooking Basics.” Cooking Basics was a three-hour weekly course that taught undergrads how to cook like restaurant chefs, on the most basic level. It’s a brilliant concept, partly because it supplies trained kitchen assistants to help produce gourmet meals for fundraising dinners. It’s also the reason that I got to cook for Dr. Hawking.

Like most of British university culture, Dr. Hawking loved Indian cuisine, and with the help of Caltech’s dining hall kitchen, we could make him a banquet. He shared it with us, the cooking class, and a few select professors. I would have been happy just to make his dinner. He insisted that we eat with him, and gave us each a copy of A Brief History of Time.

It was a fascinating meal. Dr. Hawking, single and 65 years old at the time, brought an absolutely beautiful young date who generated loads of speculation among the undergrads afterwards. Dr. Kip Thorne, a Caltech professor and one of Dr. Hawking’s close friends, later confirmed with a wink that Stephen did not allow his paralysis to extend to all aspects of his life.

It was possible to see Dr. Hawking as a bit of a rake, if you let yourself do it. He often had beautiful young women around him, and more than a few of his famous bets over open questions in physics had a reward of a copy of Playboy magazine or something similar. Take what you will from that about the boys’ club in physics, but I do not share this to diminish Dr. Hawking or tarnish his public persona. I share it because it proves something remarkable: he was indeed human.

Everything about Dr. Hawking was human; his triumphs of intellect, communication, and will were all triumphs of the human spirit. His dating life was a triumph. His appearance on The Simpsons was the ultimate triumph of nerd culture. All of this was done by some guy who spent a lot of his life in a chair, adamantly refusing to be defeated by a body that was hellbent on killing him.

It finally has. But he wrestled it, expending all of his muscle, for 54 years, for the opportunity to teach and inspire us. To make us laugh. To make us wonder.

His body has failed, but in these principles he lives forever, shining.