He was the kind of guy who showed up at his own 60th birthday party with a broken leg after flipping his wheelchair trying to take a street corner too fast, a guy whose eyes lit up with a mischievous grin at good and bad jokes. He mingled with kings and presidents and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. He had hoped someday to take a trip to the edge of space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship.
He preferred to be called Stephen. He was proud of being a family man.
“His sense of humor was legendary,” said Kip Thorne, his old friend and recent Nobel laureate from Caltech, with whom he collaborated on the seeds of what would become the movie “Interstellar.” “When he started a sentence, laboriously on his computer, I never knew whether it would end in a deep pearl of wisdom or an off-the-wall joke,” Dr. Thorne said in an email.
To scientists, however, he will be forever known for finding a relation between gravity — in the form of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — that bends the cosmos and determines its destiny and the atomic randomness that lives inside it, swept helplessly along in the river of time.
Like Einstein, and Galileo, he did his greatest work on gravity, a force we all feel in our bones, a force that, Einstein decreed, would even bend starlight, leaving, “lights all askew in the heavens.”
As a result, Dr. Hawking became an icon of mystery and curiosity and determination to understand this place we are in.
“Determination” is the key word here. Like Einstein, who portrayed himself as a slow learner who never let go once he had seized on some question, Dr. Hawking was legendarily, even irritatingly stubborn.
Without that iron will, frustrating as it was to even to his best friends at times, Dr. Hawking probably would have vanished into his own black hole a long time ago.
He was only 22, a lackadaisical graduate student, when he was given a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which usually kills in two to five years. By the time he died, he had lived with it for half a century, and doctors had added the word “atypical” to his diagnosis. As if that explained anything at all.
I was an assistant typesetter at Sky and Telescope magazine, hungry for action, when I first glimpsed Dr. Hawking whirring in his electric wheelchair through a ballroom in Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel in 1976. It struck me as the most dramatic moment I had experienced in science. I felt like I had somehow known him forever. The genius, the brilliant mind trapped in a wrecked body, are archetypes of literature and folklore.
Of course, I didn’t know him at all.
He was there to talk about black holes, the scariest things that otherwise sober physicists had ever dreamed up. Black holes, objects so dense that not even light can escape them, are the most extreme manifestations of gravity. You didn’t need to understand the mathematics to grasp the notion of gaping maws sitting at the bottoms of galaxies or at the end of time, or the six-foot-deep hole with your own name on it.