Science & Technology

A lesson on acceptance: It has been half a decade since we lost Stephen Hawking

Without acceptance, the great theoretical physicist and cosmologist may not have uncovered the cosmic mysteries that he did

By Subrato Banerjee
Published: Wednesday 29 March 2023
This mortal realm witnessed how Hawking mastered physics despite his physical limitations. Photo: NASA
This mortal realm witnessed how Hawking mastered physics despite his physical limitations. Photo: NASA This mortal realm witnessed how Hawking mastered physics despite his physical limitations. Photo: NASA

March 2018 was exactly half a decade ago and Stephen Hawking’s departure from the mortal realm still feels like yesterday.

As I write this article, a part of me wants to believe in the hereafter, for then, it wouldn’t necessarily be daft to imagine him in his celestial form, smiling at the very first image of a black hole taken just over a year since his departure to the other side, by those of us left behind. 

Read more: ISRO satellite detected 500 black hole formations in 6 years. Mission scientist tells us how they did it

For now, the academic within me takes comfort in the knowledge that he is one with the very cosmos that he had longed to learn when he was with us. Like the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff“… and to that, I’ll dare add — universe we are… and to the universe we’ll return!

This is not an article on Hawking’s works. Much has already been written about him in the last five years. Leonard Mlodinow’s beautiful memoir for this colleague, co-author, and friend of his, stood out for me – and I have encouraged those in my close circles to give his book a read. 

I just felt the need to pen down a few thoughts that will serve as immediate reminders when we find ourselves in the lowest of spirits.

In academia, for instance, we find ourselves judged by our superiors (for promotions and administrative work), by peers (who decide on the suitability of our academic publications) and now, thanks to a commercialised world, even our students. 

Given his progressively deteriorating health condition, Hawking was forced to literally live every day like it were his last. One wouldn’t dare imagine being in that state but would instead settle for a vicarious form of learning to cope with the regular dealings of lesser measure. 

Yet, this realm witnessed how Hawking mastered physics despite his physical limitations. Such is the power of the pursuit of the truth, which even the men of faith have counted to be a virtue in their words, “seek and you shall find”. 

Powered by the pursuit of knowledge, he thrived in academia as he talked to his colleagues and peers through his lectures and writings and even to you and me through his books that frequently topped the popular science list. 

Realising the very reality of the time limitation he had, he concluded, perhaps correctly, that he needed shortcuts to get to the realities he wanted to uncover. He said he’d “rather be right than rigorous” — rigour had to wait, for he himself couldn’t afford to. 

Read more: Are black holes time machines? Yes, but there’s a catch

He explored the distant stars, galaxies and black holes in his mind, as his colleagues often helped him meander through the mathematical equations to examine the features of the heavenly bodies. In the distant future, the heavens may well become holiday destinations as we transcend the shores of the cosmic ocean (as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it). 

A possible future that sees the eradication of the motor neurone disease, will be left wondering how Hawking remained so academically active in his life (much like how today we wonder Johannes Kepler worked out his second law without being trained in calculus — a mathematical tool that came after his time). 

The residents of that future may, after all, find it hard to rule out the idea that miracles did happen in our time. Conversely, it is hard to absorb the reality that we of the present are unlikely to be around to witness such episodes of sheer wonder, just as Hawking missed out on that first image of a black hole in 2019.

Hawking’s brief history, in a nutshell, therefore, remains a great lesson for all of us on acceptance. Without it, he may not have uncovered the cosmic mysteries that he did on the shoulders of his peers, students and the long-gone scientific thinkers who had inspired him. 

As a fruitful starting point, it will do us good to accept that science is a slow process and not all truths will be revealed to us within our lifetimes. 

A ‘new geometry’ pioneered by Bernhard Riemann dealing with curved spaces, much later turned out to be ideal for Einstein’s general theory of relativity (and a new theory of gravity).

Today our artificial satellites are a consequence of this understanding. Riemann never witnessed Einstein’s contributions and Einstein never witnessed artificial satellites. 

We want to be sure that the medicines we take cure us. This certainty, in turn, demands that the researchers, who have developed our prescribed drugs, have carefully spent years perfecting them with an open mind.

Following these progressive refinements of scientific wisdom, a few great minds work through recensions of scientific ideas before they become palatable for the general populace. 

Read more: Indian researchers spot rare supermassive black hole, opens new avenues for star formation research

As we all thank Stephen Hawking (among others) for this, we hope that his holiday from the physical realm has brought him closer to the cosmic truth.

Today’s world is a lot more opinionated and the ability to be offended at almost everything (including scientific refutation of previously held religious beliefs) is becoming somewhat of a global sport. 

The least we learn from the scientific approach is that, more often than not, an opinionated mind isn’t an open mind. I just hope that the story of Hawking’s life will have left us all with this peroration.

Subrato Banerjee is assistant professor, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He dedicates this article to Benno Torgler from the Queensland University of Technology

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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