Stephen Hawking, shine on
For Stephen Hawking, death was a purely mechanical process. ‘I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,’ he once said
How did universe begin? Was life on earth a matter of chance? A miracle?
Follow the scriptures unquestioningly, and the answers are self-evident. Not believing those answers is heresy. But what sets human beings apart from others—all creatures great and small—is our sharpened ability to feel, to remember, to think, to express, to be curious, and to articulate ideas in words and images. We make attempts to understand and describe what we have understood. We demonstrate what we know. We repeat it, so that others can see that we aren’t making things up. We face questions that challenge our assumptions. And we change our thinking when evidence shows the limits of our understanding. We talk, debate, and argue.
And that’s how question marks get solved, and there is the sense of wonder over the discovery of the answer, an exclamation mark.
Scientific method is hard work. It sees life and universe as a puzzle to be solved, figuring it out step by step, equation by equation, by assigning probabilities and eliminating the implausible, relying on chemistry and not alchemy, on astronomy and not astrology, to make sense of everything.
Stephen Hawking did that.
Hawking was a genius—he stood on the shoulders of Galileo (born 300 years to the day Galileo died, he often reminded people) and Newton and Einstein. He wrote in a way so that others could understand what he had discovered; he took to heart an editor’s suggestion that he should keep eliminating equations from his manuscript. And he removed them, one by one, leaving only one equation in his book—E=MC 2. He wrote simply to take science out of rarefied libraries and laboratories, so that everyone could understand, and everyone could discuss and argue and debate, for that’s the surest way for ideas to progress, to get tested, to be strengthened.
Hawking conquered overwhelming odds—debilitated by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is a neuromuscular wasting disease, he was told that he would live only a few years when he was 21. Confined to a wheelchair (which he raced around Cambridge’s crowded streets like a man perpetually in a hurry to catch the last train to London), his body increasingly unreceptive to his commands, Hawking made full use of his mind and saw the meaning of universe. He had the will to live, to love, and to understand. And then to explain it, with the wide-eyed curiosity of the teenager in a science lab who has just completed his first experiment and learned something new, something that had eluded others who had done similar experiments and not noticed that pattern, that clue, that unravelled everything.
To understand the universe he turned his attention to black holes, until then believed to be a place where laws of physics broke down, because they were so dense that anything that went into them would shrink and disappear. Nothing could escape from there, not even light. But as he dug deeper into the mathematics of black holes, he found something quite different—birth, not death. He realised that black holes would in fact fizzle, emit radiation, explode, and get scattered.
His realization connected two strands of physics—the science of gravity and of quantum mechanics. “They’re named black holes because they are related to human fears of being destroyed or gobbled up. I don’t have fears of being thrown into them. I understand them. I feel in a sense that I am their master,” he once said.
Reacting to Hawking’s death on Wednesday, several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including ministers, tweeted their condolences, praising his service to science. If they are sincere, they would from now on promote science in Indian schools, and leave the myths to the literature class—after all, Article 51(A)(h) of the Constitution creates a moral duty for every citizen to “develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
The politicians’ track record isn’t inspiring. Satyapal Singh, the minister of state for human resource development, believes some mantras had foreseen (and preceded) Newton’s laws; he has debunked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while inaugurating a hospital in Mumbai in 2014, gave examples from myths—how Karna was born, how Ganesha got his elephant head—to show ancient India’s medical prowess.
The non-scientific way is simpler, pursued by the faithful since the time of Galileo Galilei, who was forced to recant his views. The faithful explain the entire spectacle, this universe, as part of a grand plan, an intelligent design, or God’s work. In that universe, science doesn’t have a place. Views of this kind remain powerful today—not only in Satyapal Singh’s mind, but also among creationists in the United States, and among some fundamentalist imams in the Middle East and Asia.
Hawking believed the best way to combat such ignorance was by making science more accessible. He once said, “If we do discover a complete theory of universe, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.”
Ah, that three-letter word, God. Some have seized the sentence to argue that he was a believer—but not so fast. Hawking would later explain that God, in that sense, was a metaphor. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper (reference to fireworks) and set the universe going. The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value. Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.”
What explains that chance, though? God does not play dice, Einstein remarked once, since he did not like randomness. And yet, Hawking believed, the universe does not behave according to our preconceived ideas; it continues to surprise us. Science does not have all the answers instantly, but it does not mean those answers do not exist. What Hawking knew was this: that you could try to understand the randomness using reason; the answers would not be found in a religious book.
Speak of randomness and chance—the man who was born on the 300th death anniversary of Galileo, died on Einstein’s birthday, which also happened to be the π day, 14 March, or 3/14, as Americans write it, with π being 22/7, or 3.14. Hawking would have smiled.
Hawking sightings were common among Cambridge residents. Kelly Smith, a Cambridge alumna who runs a writing agency in Norwich, recalled on social media how she once saw Hawking being wheeled past in a bed at the hospital. She pointed him to her son Isaac, who was 8 then, and said, “That’s one of the cleverest people on the planet.” Nothing would have pleased Hawking more than what Isaac said, looking very blasé: “Yeah, I know, I saw him on The Simpson’s.”
For Hawking, death was a purely mechanical process. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he once said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
And he plunged into the deepest of darkness and saw the miracle of explosion, and understood how it all began.
Shine on, Stephen Hawking.
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