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Stephen Hawking

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A Brief Encounter with Stephen Hawking

In 2014 Johnny Bliss shared a moment’s inspiration and helplessness with Stephen Hawking, the incredible mind who passed away today. An obituary.

By Johnny Bliss

The moment I shared with Professor Stephen Hawking, at a science conference in Tenerife in 2014, was admittedly a strange one. I’d sat down at the end of a particularly short row of chairs, not realizing that the reason the row was short was because the place next to me had been reserved for none other than Stephen Hawking. He’d been invited there to give a talk, but of course he was also interested in hearing from the many other scientists and physicists who were present.

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By the time I realized that I had taken the seat next to the world’s most famous scientist, it was too late to move: he had already rolled up beside me and the next speaker, Richard Dawkins, was walking up to the podium to begin his talk.

Richard’s talk, about the likelihood of life elsewhere in the solar system, seemed to inspire something in Stephen. At some point in the middle of the talk, his digital voice-box started saying words, short ones like „yes“ and „no“, and his wheelchair started moving a little bit. His two nurses took interest. I saw that sentences were forming on his computer screen, like he was taking notes. I wasn’t going to lean over to read his thoughts, obviously, but I was struck by the notion that I was present for one of the world’s most intelligent minds getting inspired about something.

Later, during an intermission, I took a break to use the restroom. When I attempted to return to my seat, I discovered that Stephen Hawking’s presence had an effect on everybody who had a camera, akin to the effect that a black hole would have on light. Swarms of journalists and amateur paparazzi circled him, to the point that as I approached the outer limits of the crowd, his nurses were frustratedly yelling „Enough! Enough!“ and trying to get them to disperse, to little avail. Just trying to get back to my own seat was an odyssey in itself.

„The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.“ Stephen Hawking

The moment I shared with Stephen Hawking was this: with both of us trapped in this mob of people with flashing cameras, we shared a helpless look, and I sensed a note of resignation in his gaze. I felt a little sorry for him at this moment, because I realized it must be like this for him all the time. Unable to run, unable to cut a hasty escape, but still able to construct worlds of his own in his mind, to imagine new ways to observe reality.

Stephen Hawking: born in 1942, told 22 years later that he had a terrible, debilitating motor neuron disease (ALS) and only perhaps a couple of years left to live. Despite these gloomy projections from doctors, he managed to instead live an additional 54 years, and far from his life being over, it had in fact only begun. In the remaining half-century of his life, he would make numerous discoveries, including what became known as „Hawking radiation“, which is the phenomenon where energy leaks away from black holes. He also became well-known for his „theory of everything“, which asserted that the universe evolves according to very particular, well-defined laws. And of course his book, A Brief History of Time, sold well over ten million copies. Through all of this, as well as many appearances in pop culture, from the Simpsons to Star Trek to Pink Floyd’s album the Division Bell and even the Stephen Hawking bio-pic The Theory Of Everything, his role as a sort of ambassador of popular science solidified, and inspired several new generations of scientists, astrophysicists and otherwise.

Stephen Hawking 1942-2018.
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When Johnny met Stephen Hawking

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