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Angela Tilby: Stephen Hawking’s inner freedom

23 March 2018


A bust of Professor Stephen Hawking in the Cambridge University Centre for Theoretical Cosmology

A bust of Professor Stephen Hawking in the Cambridge University Centre for Theoretical Cosmology

I ONCE interviewed Stephen Hawking, who died last week (News, Comment, 16 March), for a television series about cosmology.

We met at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, in Cambridge. He arrived, having precariously negotiated, in his wheelchair, the traffic and passing pedestrians. Nobody took much notice of him; he was a familiar sight in Cambridge.

But his presence to the museum staff and the film crew was extraordinary. He created a hush about him, an almost religious sense of awe. At the same time, he exuded mischief, all with a half-smile, a raised eyebrow. Afterwards, he was keen to have copies of the publicity photos, which suggested to me that he was not without vanity — something that I found rather touching.

When asked, he admitted that his immobility had given him an extraordinary opportunity to meditate on the universe; his disabilities were “minor inconveniences” compared with the fascination of his work.

Like many scientists, he thought of “God” as an explanatory hypothesis that it was his job to make redundant. His early work on black holes led him to conclude that the universe had begun in something like a reverse black hole — a physical singularity out of which everything erupted.

But this was not his last word on the subject. An inexplicable emergence was too easily subject to a theistic interpretation. So he introduced the concept of “imaginary time”, a primordial indeterminate state subject to the probabilities associated with quantum mechanics. Even more recently, he insisted that the universe was simply the product of the timeless laws of physics; these were all we needed to explain the universe. (But, of course, they do not really explain anything, because they do not explain themselves.)

It is impossible to know whether Hawking would have achieved so much had he not been so profoundly disabled. He had an extraordinary capacity to function as though his body were irrelevant. He transformed his immobility to an extraordinary inner freedom, a triumph of will, unimaginable for most of us.

Recently, I have wondered whether the evolution of Hawking’s thought about the universe, while important in its own right, does not also represent a very human response to his circumstances. His early work coincided with the onset of a cruel and arbitrary illness; his theory of the random emergence of the universe in an inexplicable Big Bang accompanied that experience. Having achieved a state of detachment from the body, he came to emphasise the primacy of the laws of physics. The accidents of time, terrible as they sometimes are, are contained by timeless order.

It is not a theological conclusion, but it is not so far off, and it reminds me of the collect that asks for God’s mercy, that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal”.

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