There is a particular type of person who has the great talent of making the complicated understandable. Vincent van Gogh was all too right when he said “how difficult it is to be simple”. There is always a danger with simplification that we end up with platitudes.
Like many people who have lived in the city of Cambridge I have my own Stephen Hawking anecdote and like most others it involves a near miss with the professor as he barrelled along a narrow lane at high speed while I was an unsuspecting pedestrian. A brush with greatness perhaps. As the world marks the death of a great scholar we should perhaps reflect upon his contributions to the sum of human understanding. Anyone who has the courage to tackle cosmology, general relativity and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes is probably worth listening to especially if they are able to talk in terms that we can all understand. His “Brief History of Time” whilst often unread prompted non-physicists to think more deeply about the world that is around them. He inspired us to be intellectually curious. His numerous appearances on the television made him the world’s most popular scientist and his sense of fun shone through allowing us to appreciate that difficult questions are to be enjoyed more than feared.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of his personality was his seeming delight in getting things wrong. Hawking was renowned for making wagers about what could and could not be proved. He never thought that the Higgs-Boson particle would be found, it was. He lost $100 and there are numerous other examples. He knew that science often moved forward when thinkers could admit to being wrong. In this we perhaps learn something of the way in which the professor explored his subject. Learning for him was not only integral to his life but gave joy and sustenance to his very core. If that meant being wrong, so be it. Knowledge moved on despite not always having the right answers. As long as we, humanity, knew something that we didn’t know before the question he tried to answer he was satisfied. Being wrong in his view led to greater understanding. Perhaps schools should be more like Hawking, we should value being wrong a little more than we currently do.Like Einstein he applied his enormous intellect to matters far from the world of physics and perhaps more readily relevant to us. We are perhaps sensible to pay as much attention to the wisdom that he communicated about more earthly matters as to what he shared about the mystery of the universe. After all anyone who could be so wise as to give these three pieces of advice is worth paying attention to,“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.” You will be missed, Professor.