When I met Stephen Hawking

Deccan Chronicle.

Nation, Current Affairs

People started talking about the ‘theory of everything’, ‘many world interpretation’ and even the ‘Uncertainty principle’.

Dr Kamath with Prof. Stephen Hawking

Prof. Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian Chair at Cambridge, the position once held by Sir Isaac Newton, became my mentor through his bestseller, A brief history of time, back in 1988. 

The Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) offered a fertile ground for theories on the origin, evolution and the future state of the universe. Prof. Hawking’s lectures taught the world of latest developments in cosmology. Big Bang and big crunch became household words. People started talking about the ‘theory of everything’, ‘many world interpretation’ and even the ‘Uncertainty principle’. Several spiritualists took quantum mechanics for their rescue and to interpret the uncertainties in life based on ‘quantum principles’.

 Brief History, as it is popularly known, is poetry written in scientific language. The electronic device and the monitor that helped Prof. Hawking write and speak became his companions after he lost his voice from a lifesaving tracheotomy. He was stricken by pneumonia during a visit to the CERN lab in Geneva where the most advanced experiments in particle physics were scheduled.

Miracle is an understatement. At 22, he was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease and doctors gave him two years to live. But the meeting with his future wife Jane changed everything. He completed his PhD and married Jane. The progress of the disease slowed down and he started his new normal kind of life with Jane and later with his three children.

He always related his advancements with his personal life and indicated that personal life has a lot to do in science. Thank Jane for granting us this miracle. Like Mileva Maric, who supported Albert Einstein, Jane witnessed Hawking’s elevation to the Lucasian Chair and then the coveted world’s top-rated cosmologist.

When I wrote my first popsci book in Malayalam, I requested Prof. Hawking for a brief note to print on my book. Within a week, he replied with a short autobiographical note: My brief history. I translated it in Malayalam and published it.

 On several occasions, I had invited him to visit ‘God’s own country’ since he was in search of the secrets of the creation of the Cosmos!  But hot and humid Kerala proved a spoiler. So I decided to visit him. I found world athletic championship was going to be held in London during that time. Luckily I managed to get a ticket for the World Athletic Championships in August 2017.

 A small tree at the entrance to Trinity College, named ‘Newton’s apple tree’, offered tremendous room for selfies for visitors.  Hawking’s office was just a walk from there. I passed through the lush green meadows and plum trees filled with ripe fruits. DAMTP is at Wilberforce road.  At the entrance stood a statue of the great mathematician, S. Ramanujan, who had taken the maths arena by storm. A portrait of Hawking hung on the wall. I was at the cafeteria when Prof. Hawking’s personal assistant, Anthea Bain, informed that “he is just 50 per cent active today but I will take all efforts to bring him here”. As promised he arrived and I was told that ‘Prof. Hawking is expecting you’. 

 I was both nervous and overwhelmed at the thought of encountering the greatest scientist. There he was, in a typical couch in his famous wheelchair. A seat was arranged for me on his right. ‘Hello’, the professor welcomed me using his famous speech synthesiser; ‘Good morning’, he said with a smile. A nurse and a caretaker stood by to support.  I was introduced to them too. I found Newton’s Principia and Galielio’s Dialogues on his crowded bookshelf. There were photographs of Hawking’s younger days and also a picture of him with Newton and Einstein, shot during the Star Trek days. An animated Hawking figure for the Simpsions was also there.

 On behalf of Malayalees, I gifted him a ponnada, a kasavu mundu and an Aranmula kannadi. Albert Einstein got his idea of relativity from the thought whether a person’s face will be seen on a mirror if he runs at the speed of light with the mirror in his hand. Maybe due to this, Prof. Hawking was seen interested in that gift (kannadi) very much.

 I also gave him a copy of Bhagavad Gita by Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the former President and another book, Unseen Kerala with a lot of pictures. I talked about Kerala and its science-loving people. His face beamed when he heard that he had many fans in Kerala. He was planning an academic visit to California the next day. I left his office by noon promising to visit him again on his 80th birthday.

 A request was made to him earlier to publish his unpublished writings for the benefit of the new generation. Within two weeks of my visit, his PhD thesis was available for free at Cambridge website. The website crashed for the first time in history.

 The last email sent to him a few weeks back was about the Nasaditya suktha from the Rigveda and the Purusha suktha. Carl Sagan, the famous scientist who wrote the introduction to Brief History, had highlighted the knowledge of the Vedic people regarding the limitations of the search of the ‘initial conditions’ by humans, who are part of the same Universe.
Dr A.Rajagopal Kamath