I first met Stephen Hawking in March 2003, when the world’s most famous scientist visited Texas. For a young science reporter at the Houston Chroniclean invitation to interview Hawking during a stop in College Station judged to be a real coup.
Reporters never like to preface their questions with a topic; it is indeed something I often refuse to do. However, with Hawking and his limited ability to communicate, this was a requirement. With nearly all of his motor skills impaired, Hawking used a custom computer to form words, which were then pronounced through a voice synthesizer. He could usually form a short sentence in about five to ten minutes.
Before meeting him, I asked Hawking some scientific questions. But after all these years, the only question and answer that stays with me was about the hottest issue of the day, the impending conflict in Iraq. What did he think of the likelihood that the United States would go to war against Iraq?
“It will be much harder to get out of Iraq than it is to get in,” Hawking warned. He believed that America and its allies would be bogged down in a protracted, invincible conflict. As usual, Hawking proved prescient.
Theoretical physicists have the broadest mandates: looking back to the very beginning of the universe, when the cosmos underwent a rapid period of inflation, while also projecting hundreds of billions of years ahead into the future, when everything will end in a slow, desperate heat death. With his thesis on the nature of black holes and theories about everything, Hawking lived in this world.
But he also lived a lot in the real world, outside of the academic tower, leaving Cambridge for places like Texas. Perhaps it was because of his staggering disability that people got along so well with Hawking. Perhaps it was because of his gifted ability to relate the distant physics of cosmology to a cosmetologist.
Whatever it was, the world needs more of it. With the passing of Stephen Hawking, we have lost our most famous scientist, someone who has transcended the culture wars to cultivate a public appreciation for science and for scientists.
Hawking had come to Texas because of oil money, especially that of a Houston wildcatter named George Mitchell, which caused the current fracking boom. Mitchell, a billionaire, kept his fascination with the stars above his childhood until late in his life.
In 2002, Mitchell saw Hawking on a PBS show lamenting the US’s failure to complete construction of the Superconducting Super Collider. That episode had hurt Mitchell too. He had provided seed funding for the project as early as the 1980s, and he lamented the 1993 cancellation of the particle physics collider. Mitchell had contacts in the physics department at Texas A&M University, his alma mater, and through them arranged a meeting with Hawking in 2002, when the great physicist was visiting the California Institute of Technology.
Hawking was skeptical of Mitchell and his oil money. He had rejoiced at the 2001 demise of Houston-based energy trading company Enron. But Mitchell’s enthusiasm (and money — about $20 million for various projects over 15 years) won the physicist. After the 2002 meeting, Hawking visited Texas A&M or Mitchell’s ranch half a dozen times, giving sold-out lectures on campus and giving prestige to the physics department.
Over time, Hawking really began to enjoy spending time on the 5,650-acre, wooded ranch owned by Mitchell, about an hour north of Houston, known as Cook’s Branch Conservancy. There he and other elite physicists from around the world, many of them Hawking students, gathered privately for days, amid natural beauty, for conclaves to discuss the universe.
On a few of these occasions, I had the privilege of eating, drinking, and having some of their discussions with the physicists. The math flew over my head, but the experience turned out to be sublime. It’s not every day you drink expensive wine and watch Stephen Hawking being hoisted into a carriage next to Mitchell for a ride across an estate.
Communication is important
These encounters can also be somewhat awkward affairs. For example, during dinner, Mitchell and Hawking sat at the head of the table. While an attendant was feeding Hawking, Mitchell might make a comment to the physicist, or ask a question, then wait in silence for minutes for an answer. Meanwhile, the chatter continued everywhere while Hawking was working at his computer. Suddenly, and incongruously, the electronic voice blurted out some answer.
In these moments I wondered what it must be like for one of the most brilliant people in the world to have all these thoughts in his head, but unable to communicate them quickly or in totality.
I have been fortunate enough to spend time with some of the most brilliant people of our time, such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Jane Goodall. They all have sharp minds and a limited tolerance for wasting time. How must it have felt to be perhaps the sharpest of all these minds, but unable to intervene, direct a conversation, or cut it off? I’m pretty sure this would drive someone with a ruthless intellect like Musk crazy.
And yet Hawking devoted much of his life to public communication, giving long speeches where he just sat and reading the computer a text he’d been working on for so long. Hawking spent untold days writing books, preparing and giving public lectures, and even spent time meeting reporters and answering their questions.
This is the lesson I draw from Hawking’s passing – that important scientific efforts and findings should be widely shared with the public in the hope of deepening appreciation for a rational worldview. If someone in a wheelchair, with a life-threatening illness, and the ability to share just a single word per minute can become a gifted science communicator, the rest of us can certainly do better.