This article was written four days ago at the request of the Daily Mirror and sent to them. But they still haven’t published it, so it seems appropriate to put it where some people can see it:
Paying tribute to the unique human being that was Stephen Hawking is a hard task. I hardly feel competent. I never knew him in the years when he could go for a stroll or take part in a casual conversation. I only knew him as a brave and brilliant man cruelly trapped in a body which limited his movements almost to zero, and his conversation to about two words a minute – those words painstakingly assembled letter by letter using a twitch of one of his face muscles – the only thing which the awful Motor Neurone disease left him in control of.
In spite of all that he was able to live and interact, rule his household with an iron hand, evolve new concepts in theoretical physics, and hang out in social situations, contributing wit and wisdom.
It was thanks to my old friend, Armenian Astronomer Garik Israelian, that I ended up spending time with Stephen. Garik created the STARMUS conferences – great informal confluences of astronomers, musicians and astronauts, the third of which was dedicated to Stephen Hawking. As Garik’s long-time supporter I helped to organise the flow of those conferences, and we created the Stephen Hawking medal – awarded to outstanding proponents of music and Astronomy. Stephen loved this – and knew that the medal would be part of his legacy when he was gone, as well as the outstanding contributions he had made to Cosmology theory.
But Garik and Starmus gave Stephen much more. To bring Stephen to the stage for his brilliant talks, Garik organised a massive rock fanfare and cosmic video – heralding his entry in his famous self-driven wheelchair. Stephen was treated like a rock star or champion boxer all the way and he visibly revelled in it. With all the struggles he constantly endured due to his disability he always kept his outstanding sense of humour and was determined to enjoy life. His moments on stage were always memorable, but off stage he was just as entertaining.
I once spent an entire evening sitting with him in a Chinese restaurant in Camden Town trying to have an in-depth conversation with him about the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the Universe. Throughout the meal he probably typed about 40 words but still managed to make us all laugh.
I have some great pictures of him watching my live 3-D presentation at Starmus wearing his interference goggles, and for the next conference I converted it into a short 3-D film of the solar system and dedicated it to him. He insisted I hold the OWL viewer while he studied the whole thing from beginning to end. At the end he typed ‘I am smiling’. Of course he knew it was hard for us to know if he was smiling or not.
When Stephen missed the lecture given by astronaut Charlie Duke, Garik arranged a private audience for half a dozen of us to listen to Charlie do his presentation again. The first part of Charlie’s talk detailed his experiences on the Moon. The second part detailed his subsequent relationship with God. Stephen went into typing mode as soon as Charlie had finished. Eventually Stephen activated the voice read-out of what he had written. That unforgettable mechanical voice said (I hope I remembered this right) “God must have a great sense of humour”.
Today this seems painfully but somehow beautifully appropriate. All Hail Stephen Hawking ! RIP.
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