This week Stephen Hawking died at 76. Somehow this feels like a moment to stop and celebrate the human spirit. Most of us have heard about the genius who held Isaac Newton's endowed chair in Mathematics at Cambridge University in England. An expert on some of life’s most perplexing mysteries of time and space, he wrote ground breaking and ever popular books about black holes, A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell among them.
But it was only in his later years that many of us came to marvel at the majestic life force that made him who he was. I was won over by the movie “The Theory of Everything” which came out in 2014. Starring Eddie Redmayne who won the oscar for best actor for his portrayal of the scientist, the film depicted his early years as a student at Cambridge, and young husband. It showed the times when he began to recognize the early signs of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and his romance and relationship with his first wife, as well as his playful love for his 3 young children. The movie showed his personality, his shyness, his ironic sense of humor the playful way he rode his children on his wheelchair. The film illustrated this sweet and vulnerable aspect to Hawking that complemented his searing intellect in a way that was unforgettable.
But mostly, I pause this week to recognize the power of the human soul to persevere. Hawking was in his early twenties when he showed signs of ALS and received his diagnosis at 21. He was told he might have 2-3 years to live, which is the usual prognosis. Yet, he persevered for 55 years exploring the bounds of the universe and the limits of human strength. As his body deteriorated his spirit prevailed.
It was 1985 when he got a severe case of pneumonia. To save his life the doctors performed an irreversible procedure putting in a breathing tube, a tracheotomy. Medical experience would tell you that this change would immediately shorten his life. But Stephen Hawking lived for over 32 years without speech all the while traveling the world, giving talks through a machine, writing books and having fun. For his 65th birthday he requested a trip in a space simulator, the first paraplegic to experience zero gravity.
All his life Stephen Hawking continued to push the boundaries of mathematics and physics by asking new questions that few people had even considered. Trapped in a body that posed enormous challenges for him, Hawking taught classes at the highest levels of mathematics, did original research, and remained a force to be reckoned with for 76 years.
Life so often surprises us with its coincidences. Stephen Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo and died on Albert Einstein’s birthday. I don’t know what this means but something about that fact keeps pointing me to a truth behind his life and everything in it. There was very little that was random about Stephen Hawking. He was meant to be here, and he fulfilled his God-given destiny. Though I am not sure he believed in God himself, I think he taught a great deal about the power of the human spirit, and the God-given strength in each of us. Somehow he discovered the key to living into that strength.