When Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 in 1963, he was already one of the smartest people on the planet. Despite being given two years to live, Hawking survived for another 55 years and went on to become arguably the greatest mind on our planet. And the greatest example of the power to overcome your circumstances, no matter how cruel. He died last week, aged 76, having spent the greater part of his life in a wheelchair, losing his voice and using an iconic synthesizer to speak.
His understanding of how the universe functions has become the bedrock of how we understand our solar system. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were intellectual giants who laid the foundations but it was Hawking who filled in the details, and revealed many of its secrets. “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special,” he said.
He authored the famous book A Brief History of Time, which was a runaway bestseller selling over 10m copies – a remarkable feat for a book about cosmology explaining with simple elegance scientific theories only physicists would usually exposed to.
Arguably the smartest person who ever lived, Hawking said things that still resonate: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge,” he said.
Of his illness, he famously said: “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research. My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
Stop for a moment and ponder how a man, who could justifiably feel that life played a cruel joke on him with a degenerative illness, was able to overcome this physical incapacitation and still be the smartest person on the planet. Like Nelson Mandela, who emerged from losing 27 years of his life to prison with a Dalai Lama-like enlightenment, Hawking could have been bitter. Instead he focussed himself on tackling these great intellectual mysterious of physics and cosmology, instead of dwelling on his own, not insubstantial physical problems. “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny,” he once quipped.
The acknowledgement we heap on him always correctly reminds us of how anyone can overcome hardship – and how that is the most venerable of personality traits, even if you’re the cleverest person who ever lived.
He was just as famous for his remarkable sense of humour, appearing on The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons TV shows as himself. When he was interviewed on his CNN talk show, Larry King asked him what puzzled him most about the universe, he replied: “women”.
One of his most famous quotes, especially poignant given his own disabilities, and which should be an inspiration to us all, was: “Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do. It matters that you don’t give up.”
RIP Stephen Hawking, not only the greatest mind but also the greatest survivor on the planet.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail