Modal close

Hi there!

Did you know that you can get our headlines, stories and web exclusives delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our Daily News Digest today! Don't worry, we'll never share or sell your information.

Remembering Stephen Hawking, Groundbreaking Physicist and Advocate for Climate, Palestine & Peace

Listen
Media Options
Listen

On Saturday, members of the scientific community, family, friends and fans alike will gather to remember the life and legacy of groundbreaking physicist Stephen Hawking. Hawking died on March 14 at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 76. For decades, Hawking enchanted both scientists and science lovers by making groundbreaking discoveries about the origins of the universe, then translating these ideas for millions of nonscientists worldwide. His career and life itself have been celebrated as a medical miracle. Born in Oxford, Britain, in 1942, he was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder known as Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 21. Doctors said he had only a few years to live. Instead, he went on to live for more than 50 years, traveling the world in his motorized wheelchair and communicating through a custom-made computerized voice synthesizer. His only complaint was that the synthesizer gave him an American accent. He also protested against U.S. wars, including the U.S. war in Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We speak to Kitty Ferguson, author of two books about Hawking, “Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind” and “Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything.”

Related Story

Video squareStoryMar 01, 2018“Freakishly Warm” Arctic Weather Has Scientists Reconsidering Worst-Case Scenarios on Climate Change
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Hawking-Radiation” by Philip Glass, from the score to Errol Morris’s film A Brief History of Time, based on Stephen Hawking’s book of the same name. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

On Saturday, members of the scientific community, family, friends, fans alike will gather to remember the life and legacy of the groundbreaking physicist Stephen Hawking. Dr. Hawking died March 14th at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 76. For decades, he enchanted both scientists and science lovers by making groundbreaking discoveries about the origins of the universe, then translating these ideas for millions of nonscientists worldwide. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, has sold more than 10 million copies.

His career and life itself have been celebrated as a medical miracle. Born in Oxford, Britain, in 1942, he was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder known as Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 21. Doctors said he had only a few years to live. Instead, he went on to live for more than half a century, traveling the world in his motorized wheelchair, communicating through a custom-made computerized voice synthesizer. His only complaint was that the synthesizer gave him an American accent.

Dr. Hawking also protested against U.S. wars, including the U.S. war in Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Physics professor Michio Kaku of the City University of New York said, quote, “Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world.”

This is Stephen Hawking, speaking at the White House in 1998.

STEPHEN HAWKING: Yet if, as I hope, basic science becomes part of general awareness, what now appear as the paradoxes of quantum theory will seem as just common sense to our children’s children. … However, to a large extent, we shall have to rely on mathematical beauty and consistency to find the ultimate theory of everything.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s physicist, professor and best-selling author Stephen Hawking, speaking in 1998 at the White House.

Despite Hawking’s avowed atheism, his funeral Saturday is scheduled to be a traditional Church of England service.

Well, for more, we’re going to Savannah, Georgia, to speak with Stephen Hawking’s biographer Kitty Ferguson, the author of two books about Hawking: Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind and Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kitty Ferguson. Your thoughts on Stephen Hawking’s passing, a man you have worked with for many years?

KITTY FERGUSON: Well, we have, for many years, known that this could happen at any time. We’ve had him much longer than we ever expected to. Nevertheless, to hear that he had died was a shock. I think, on my part, I thought, “No, Stephen doesn’t die.” We always hear he might, but he doesn’t. And my feeling is that the world is just an oddly empty place without him. And I’m so sad to lose him, really.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you worked with him on your biographies of him. He reviewed the scientific aspects of what you wrote?

KITTY FERGUSON: Yes. Initially—excuse me—he gave me a lot of material, pictures of his childhood, and his own recollections that he had written out about when he first discovered he had his disease. And he sent me off and, you know, said, “Go ahead and write it.” And I did. And then I brought back—he didn’t ask to see the paragraphs about his life. He asked to see the scientific paragraphs, the scientific pages. And so, we sat there in his office, and he read them, and I turned the pages for him so he could read them. And he approved of all of those.

And then, when he wrote his book, The Universe in a Nutshell, I was asked to come in and help him make it simpler, more understanding to—more understandable to what he calls ordinary people. That’s like you and I and anyone who isn’t a theoretical physicist. So, at that time also, I sat in his office. I remember so clearly the two screens in front of us, one with his communications system and the other with the book, with the manuscript of his book.

AMY GOODMAN: Kitty—

KITTY FERGUSON: And we would scroll down, and I would say, “Stephen, I think that passage is too difficult. You’ve got to make that simpler.”

AMY GOODMAN: Last year—

KITTY FERGUSON: And his reply was: “It seems perfectly clear to me.” And, of course, I thought, “Oh, dear, this is going to be a problem.” But then I looked over at him, and I saw his wonderful smile and knew that he was having me on. That was a smile that I had described as a smile that would light the universe.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year—

KITTY FERGUSON: And sadly, in the last few months of his life, perhaps years—last few months, really, he could no longer smile like that. Only his eyes could smile. The eyes could smile to light the universe, but not the whole face. And this is sad. And it is sad to lose him.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Stephen Hawking said that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement will cause avoidable environmental damage. This is Hawking speaking to the BBC ahead of a birthday conference in Cambridge, which was organized to mark his 75th birthday.

STEPHEN HAWKING: We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulfuric acid. Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. By denying the evidence for climate change, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Hawking took a number of scientific and political stands. In 2013, stirred up quite a bit of controversy when he joined the academic boycott against Israel. Can you explain his position there, Kitty Ferguson?

KITTY FERGUSON: Well, he had been in Israel previous to this. I don’t have the dates at hand exactly. But his last visit there, he had asked to also speak to a Palestinian audience, which he did. And then, the next time he was invited to go, his first reaction was: “Good, this will give me another chance to speak out for the Palestinians.” But then, colleagues and, I think, some of his Palestinian physicist friends said a boycott would probably be more effective. And at that point, he decided not to attend any more conferences there. As far as I know, he’s turned down two invitations, maybe more, coming from the president of Israel. So, this has been a very strong cause for him.

I have to say that he’s been accused of boycotting things in Israel and not boycotting things in other countries that also have civil rights problems, such as China. I have to say, I’ve never in all my years detected anything anti-Semitic about him. So I think any kind of accusations on those grounds are unfounded. I personally wouldn’t write about anybody who was vocally anti-Semitic.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how he dealt with his motor neurone disease, how he dealt with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and really normalized living with difficulties like this, enormous physical challenges for so many people around the world?

KITTY FERGUSON: Well, first of all, the first time I met him, when I went into his office and met him for the first time, when I was—that was when I was proposing to write my first book about him—I was shocked. He just seemed so much worse off than I had ever been led to expect, even in pictures had led me to expect. And the slowness of his communication seemed so frustrating. But I soon realized, this is his way of communicating. He is not frustrated by it. This is his way of dealing with things, and I’ve got to learn to accept it that way, too.

But I think one important point that’s been brought out by many other similarly or nearly as similarly handicapped people since his death, really, is that it’s not quite right to talk about his doing all he did in spite of his illness. Partly he did it because of his illness. And if you read some of his writing about the time when he was just beginning to deal with it, he says himself, “Everything I have done since then, I would probably not have done had I not had this illness.” Now, that’s very interesting. We can’t really know that that’s so, that he would not have done it. But he was sort of at sea at that time. He wasn’t focused. And the illness and his marriage to Jane Wilde focused him in a way that—could we have expected that otherwise?

AMY GOODMAN: Kitty Ferguson, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion. There’s so much to talk about in the life of Stephen Hawking. And we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. Kitty Ferguson, the author of two biographies of Stephen Hawking, including Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind and Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything. Stephen Hawking will be remembered tomorrow at his funeral in Britain.

A very happy birthday to Mike Burke!

But we have this breaking news right now out of Gaza: The Palestinian Health Ministry says at least five people have been killed by Israeli soldiers, and some 350 others injured, many of them by live bullets. The deaths come as Gaza residents built a tent city near the wall as part of a planned 6-week-long protest kicking off today, which is known as Land Day.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“Freakishly Warm” Arctic Weather Has Scientists Reconsidering Worst-Case Scenarios on Climate Change

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation
Up arrowTop