NATHAN MYHRVOLD: The Stephen Hawking I knew
'A side effect was that once you've worked with Stephen, it's pretty hard to feel sorry for yourself'
Most of us spend most of our lives without any sense of the imminence of our mortality. This wasn't true for Stephen Hawking. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at age 21 and given months to live. Whenever somebody uses the expression "delaying the inevitable" in my presence, I always reply, "Why yes, I woke up this morning alive." I know someday that won't happen; none of us lives forever, so all of life is about delaying the inevitable. On Wednesday, this caught up with Stephen Hawking - but not before he had managed to delay the inevitable by more than 50 years, a time he spent exploring the universe, with the sword of Damocles dangling above him at every moment.
I was a postdoctoral researcher with Stephen in 1983. The work I did with him focused on trying to solve fundamental questions. What are space and time? Where did the universe come from? How does quantum mechanics, which can be demonstrated in a candle flame, interact with gravity, which binds that candle to Earth? The work was fascinating, and while my later career took me far afield from these basic questions, the spirit of that inquiry stayed with me.
The entire enterprise of fundamental physics is audacious in its ambition. Trying to puzzle out the truth about the universe from scant evidence is a huge undertaking, especially given the cosmic scale and its implications. Every day Stephen and I would discuss the origin of the universe, or the properties of gigantic black holes in the center of the galaxy - things separated from us by billions of years and millions of light years. That we can make any headway at all on such puzzles is surprising. Yet Stephen was utterly undaunted by the challenge. In his presence, I could dare to think not only that it might be possible, but that I might even contribute to it in some way.
Stephen's scientific prowess, remarkable as it was, was only part of the picture, however. Daily life for him posed incredible physical challenges that could crush almost anyone's spirit. A side effect was that once you've worked with Stephen, it's pretty hard to feel sorry for yourself. Whenever things in your life seem miserable and unfair, you stop and think of him, and it resets your perspective. Maybe my lot in life isn't so bad after all.
It wasn't just that Stephen did his work from a body that barely functioned, though that is amazing enough. The positive attitude he exuded was even more incredible. He had a sharp wit and loved to tell jokes - and here, too, he succeeded despite his limitations. When I first worked with Stephen, before he had an electronic synthesizer, his voice had become a low, barely intelligible rumble. So much so that guessing the content was a good part of the task. Here's the thing - the punchline of a joke is by its nature unexpected. So when he told a joke, he often had to repeat the punchline four or five times before we would finally get it. That sometimes painful process never dimmed his enthusiasm for entertaining us.
Once, when we were alone, Stephen spoke to me about his condition. He said that, actually, it was an advantage! My response was blunt: C'mon, Stephen, it's just me you're talking to, tell me the truth. He repeated the claim and explained that the disability had at least two big benefits. First, he couldn't write things down, so he had to keep more information in his head. Doing that forced him to simplify complex problems to a few crucial issues, a discipline that proved very helpful. Second, he said, nobody expected him to serve on faculty committees!
Stephen never had much patience with such formalities. While I was working with him, an invitation came in to an elite workshop on supergravity, a theory that was hot at the time. The invitation specified that only one person per research group could attend; Stephen recommended a graduate student in the department who was working directly in this area. The organizers bristled and reiterated that they expected just the most senior person in the group to come. Stephen sent the student anyway, along with a note: "I'm sorry you do not have room for me to attend as well."
That generosity of spirit, expressed frequently and in many ways, endeared Stephen to everybody who worked with him. All of us who were lucky enough to have Stephen in our lives will miss him deeply.