“Out, out, brief candle:” An English Professor and Stephen Hawking

Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

The death of Stephen Hawking struck me with an unexpected intensity. I spent an hour online, just before bed, trying to determine whether or not this was one of those “celebrity death hoax” things. And then I spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, listening to my husband sleeping and wondering to myself, “what now?” A literature professor devastated by the loss of a theoretical physicist. Some things really are stranger than fiction.

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.

I’ve wrestled with my emotions these last couple of days, trying to decide whether or not to write about this. I feel like an imposter. An interloper! I’m not a scientist. Still, I’ve always been fascinated with it. In high school, I took every class in the sciences that I could, from earth and planetary sciences to medical chemistry, from animal behavior to human physiology. I even started college as a biology/pre-medicine major and explored courses in geology, physics, and astronomy. But, I have never been “good” at science. I failed my first year of college chemistry because, when the professor started lecturing about “moles” and “imaginary numbers,” I got up and walked out of the room, never to return. (Okay, I retook the course a semester later and did alright). I love the word “quark,” but don’t ask me to explain what it is. I only remember that “mitosis” is a thing because it’s a word in one of my favorite songs, “Imitosis” by Andrew Bird.  

I did end up becoming a doctor, after all, but with a penchant for philosophy rather than physics; and despite my personal difficulties with the subject matter, I have always considered myself a fan of Hawking’s. I’ve read some of his books, watched the recent biopic The Theory of Everything a few times, and always found him a welcome, quirky addition to any television show where he appeared as special guest. Yet, despite my being interested in his life and work, I didn’t expect to respond as intensely to his death as I have, with this deep sense of loss. It feels like a dear colleague, even a family member, has passed, and unexpectedly at that.

However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.

Of course, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in the 1960s and lived on, actively, for an incredible 55 years. He was also in his 70s when he passed away, so he lived a full life despite his disease. His death, then, should perhaps not have come as such a shock, and yet it feels shocking. Somehow, as nonsensical as this sounds, I expected him to live forever. He was Stephen Freaking Hawking, after all.

As I’ve thought about his passing over these last 48-hours, I realize that part of my shock and grief must come from a sense of severe disappointment that it has happened now. I feel we are living in a particularly dark, cynical, and mad age. Our society has fallen prey to forces that aim to discredit facts, create prejudice against science, and reject the virtue of honesty. Ignorance, bias, anti-intellectualism, and a gleeful embracing of actual “fake news,” has become a rallying cry and a way of life for much of our population.

And in the midst of these attacks on education, on invention, and on truth, we lose a man like Stephen Hawking, who devoted his life to seeking and spreading knowledge, and who did so in a way that embraced the reality that people approach science from different perspectives and backgrounds, and at varying levels of preparedness. He was a people’s scientist, a brilliant mind guided by a simply human heart, and a man whose voice and conscience we need more of now. The void he leaves behind seems impossible to fill and makes that darkness seem even more impenetrable and unavoidable.

I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.

So, it is loss and sadness that I feel, yes. But more than that, it is despair. These unrelenting attacks on common sense become harder and harder to bear every day, especially to someone who devotes his life to the pursuit of truth and to equipping others with the tools they need to think for themselves, and to appreciate that ability. This is a great burden to lay upon the death of one man, I know. And in spite of my melancholy, I do want to remember Stephen Hawking for the good he has done for the world, and for me.

Hawking the Writer

I first encountered Hawking when I was a senior in high school. I had completed all four years of my diploma requirements by the time I was a junior, so I was able to take whatever extra electives I wanted in my final year. One of the classes was “Independent Reading” (shocker!) I’ve always been more of a fiction reader, but I took the opportunity in that class to read a lot of non-fiction, everything from a biography of Harry Caray (“Hooooly Cow!”) to Hoyle’s Rules of Games. Another book I remember was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’m sure I only understood about 34% of that book, if I’m being generous. But it blew my mind anyway, and it led me to The Universe in a Nutshell, and A Briefer History of Time, and On the Shoulders of Giants.

Reading Hawking also led me to Carl Sagan (thanks to a friendly librarian who understood card catalogs better than I did). I read Sagan’s Cosmos, Contact, and The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan led me to other books, such as Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys, which led to movies like October Sky, Space Camp, and the like. So, Stephen Hawking literally opened up an entire universe to me, a kind of intellectual quest that was and continues to be nearly spiritual in its own way, and a genre that, otherwise, I may never have explored. Most recently, the road from Hawking has led to my reading books like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science. Had I not been a wandering, wondering, lost-but-eager 17-year-old kid who just happened to stumble across Hawking at that one opportune moment, I don’t even know what kind of reader, or person, I would be today.

Hawking the Human Being

Since first reading Hawking’s works, I’ve learned a lot about him as a person. According to his family, Hawking once said, “it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” To me, this sentiment expresses the type of person Hawking was, at least as I’ve come to know him from afar. He had his human faults, like anyone else, and these have been expressed in biographies written about him, in the latest film about his life, and by Hawking himself, who despite his rare brilliance was also humble and self-aware. Still, to me, Hawking has always balanced an appreciation for the everyday human experience and human needs, with the genius required of him by his pursuits in theoretical physics. It seems to me a rare ability to be able to live with one foot in the “real” world and another planted firmly amongst the stars.

Some of the most impressive and personally meaningful things I’ve learned about Hawking include his support of women, both in the sciences and in general. He called himself a feminist and supported equal pay and opportunity for women, something the sciences and academia still struggle with despite our supposed “progressive” cultures. Hawking was also a champion for truth. He is famous for his statement that, “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” This message resonates strongly today, in an age that celebrates personal opinion above objective fact, an age that suggests we should all be free to abide by our own perceptions of truth rather than challenging us to aspire to creditable fact.

I’ve tried to recall all the times I saw him on some television show or another. I can distinctly remember him appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, although I know that’s not even close to a complete listing of his presence in pop culture. That desire and willingness to reach out to popular audiences always impressed me, and it is something I see in upcoming scientists. I know they, too, must have been inspired by his desire and ability to bridge that sometimes ominous gap. Hawking also had a great sense of humor. He joked constantly about himself and his “grand” pursuits and gave of his time rather freely for someone who must have been incredibly busy. And finally, his philanthropy efforts, both with his own foundation and with other charitable events and organizations, are just another reason to respect him as a human being, one who cared deeply for the human race and who seemed to genuinely worry about our future together.

Hawking the Marvel

Of course, what most impresses me about Stephen Hawking is simply how impressive he was. Intellectually and physically, he was a mystery and a marvel. The more I learn about Stephen Hawking, and the more I try to decipher his work (only the mass audience stuff, as I’m not nearly capable enough of reading his academic work), the more I realize how little I know about life, the universe, and everything. That kind of thinking used to leave me feeling depressed and desperately anxious. Will I have enough time to learn everything I want to learn? To do everything I want to do? To begin living the kind of life, and being the kind of person, I want? My stoic teachings have helped me learn to stop questioning and start doing, but Hawking’s life demonstrates this philosophy in action.

I look to Hawking and other personal heroes, now, and find some of that anxiety, thankfully, has dissipated. I’ve learned to understand these women and men as human beings, too, with their own struggles and challenges. Hawking certainly lived a life filled with challenges; yet he refused to let them stop him, as many of us would. He also found time to spread positivity and passion and encouragement to the millions of people around the world who needed to hear the purest of messages: you can do it.  

Hawking once said, “my goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” I think he must have come closer than anyone else in living memory to achieving this. His appreciation for the simple facts of life, his understanding of the bigger mysteries, and his joy in the mundane, must have made the experience of life the greatest event of all. I can only hope to achieve an ounce of that kind of perspective, that kind of drive, and that kind of focused passion. An ounce of the Hawking model would be a dream to me.

So, farewell, giant. May we build upon your shoulders.

And may we prove ourselves deserving of your legacy.  

14 thoughts on ““Out, out, brief candle:” An English Professor and Stephen Hawking

  1. Oh Adam, what a beautiful tribute. He really was an extraordinary man. I’m so glad that I read A Brief History of Time and caught a glimpse of his kindness and goodness. Wouldn’t it have been the coolest to have been taught by him?

  2. This is a beautiful post and wonderful sentiments. Though I don’t feel the despair you feel, I also had the initial reaction of: wow, this is a bad time in our world, and it’s scary to lose someone like him when we desperately need someone like him right now.

  3. What an excellent article.You really sum up my feelings about Hawking’s passing too. He really was a ‘people’s scientist’ as you say and an inspiring person. It’s sad that another genius has gone from this world, but at least he left behind a wealth of material that we can learn from.

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