This is going to be some epic revelatory love story. That’s probably what you’re thinking now, right? And in some ways it is, but definitely not in the way you’re presuming. So if you want an astro-flavored sappy and romantic narrative, you’re probably better off re-reading The Fault in Our Stars. This is your free pass from my click-bait. I’m giving you an out here!
But anyway, there was a total lunar eclipse the other night. With a wide gaze and fully tilted neck eagerly awaiting the blood moon, I couldn’t help but think of one precious star up in the sky: My friend, the late Stephen Hawking.
For context, Stephen Hawking was a renowned cosmologist (someone who studies the interaction between space and time) and professor at University of Cambridge. His most notable work was his research on black holes. After battling ALS (a neurodegenerative disease) for nearly 55 years, he died at age 76.
Well, I never actually met the guy. But I’d like to think that since we have somewhat similar surnames, and I can occasionally feign a low quality British accent, he’d withstand my company for a cup of tea or two.
You see, I’ve never really vibed with physics. Gyroscopes make me wildly uncomfortable, and at this point in my life I’d rather gouge my eyes out than have to examine another damn RLC circuit. Call me a simple F = MA girl, I guess.
But something about the sky, space, time –the astro side of physics– was just wholly different. The cross-pollination of philosophy, perspective, and science would always leave me feeling… well, euphoric.
Hawking broke everything down into such layman’s terms and I, like many others, just ate it up. He could explain his theory on the history of the universe in a few sentences: If the universe is constantly expanding, then if we go backward in time, it’s getting compressed. Hotter. Denser. So what was at the very beginning? Maybe a space time singularity, he posited. That was it. To this day, I strive for that concision and elegance.
I constantly read about his work in my free time. He was the type to prove his own work wrong, just because he was that good. Who do you know that’s just that good?
He was always looking to further his contributions to society, and he transcended academia and science.
Battling ALS from the age of 21, Hawking never let the challenges of his life get in the way of his work. In The Theory of Everything, a 2014 film based off his life, you can see Eddie Redmayne (playing Stephen) receiving feedback on papers in crutches, and defending his thesis from his wheelchair. He searched vehemently for the truth, despite it all.
His persistence was intoxicating far and wide. He was absolutely hilarious. Watch this interview between him and John Oliver and tell me you didn’t cackle at least once.
And lastly, he saw something special in every one of us.
“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 once said. “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It just matters that you don’t give up.”
I remember my experiences during his passing vividly. It was the early morning of pi day, and at MIT that’s one of the most important days on campus. Regular decisions day. I was lying in my bed in Cambridge texting all my friends about it and silently crying under the covers.
What a legend he was. He gave so much to science and this world. Even after everything. We all agreed we lost a hero that day.
But there was a silver lining in all this, a sort of beautiful symmetry that came along with his passing that I think Stephen would have admired.
Stephen is gone, but his work didn’t die with him that day; 1000 new students would get the opportunity to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world and maybe even become the next Stephen Hawking ourselves. Now, it’s up to us to carry the baton and continue his work on the marriage of space and time.
And maybe this is a piece that is going to rehash others’ old wounds. Hell, it definitely did for me. But I do feel that we need to take the time to tell the people we love or aspire to be how we feel, even if it hurts.
So, here goes: I love you Stephen. Thanks for all of it.