There is much to learn, to explore, and to enjoy as one progresses on the path of deeper and deeper understanding through logic and reason, which is only what Stephen Hawking could do – he was the epitome of the primacy of mind over matter
I don’t remember know exactly when it was that I first came to know about Stephen Hawking, but it must have been about 20 years ago. He had become famous both for his disease and for his book A Brief History of Time which was published in 1988. Its objective was to explain his work in simple enough language for the educated layman to understand – thus fulfilling one of the social responsibilities of scientists which is to popularize their work for the people at large, otherwise these brilliant ideas and discoveries would remain confined to the ultra-specialists who constitute a relatively small proportion of any discipline. The book has sold 10 million copies and been translated in 35 languages and, as someone commented, it is perhaps the most sold non-read book in the world!
‘When I turned 21, my expectations were reduced to zero. It was important that I came to appreciate what I did have. Although I was unfortunate to get motor neurone disease, I’ve been very fortunate in almost everything else. I’ve been lucky to work in theoretical physics at a fascinating time, and it’s one of the few areas in which my disability is not a serious handicap. It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life is, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and at life in general’
It remained for 237 weeks on the Sunday Times best-seller list, the longest ever for any book, and amazingly so for a technical book that purported to explain complicated, highly abstract concepts to laymen. People, it is said, just bought it as a coffee table book: that was displayed in the living room so they would appear intelligent! It would seem that Stephen hawking realized that appearance was not reality, and there were duds like me who needed a still simpler version. So in 2005 A Briefer History came out. I had duly bought the longer version, and I remember not being able to go beyond half of it, especially as physics and mathematics had never been my forte. So for many years I left it at that.
It goes without saying that, as a doctor, what immediately caught my attention was the picture of the scientist slumped in his wheelchair, with the lower part of his face to somewhat distorted. And then to learn that he had been suffering from a condition known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or AML, which forms part of a group of diseases which affect the nerves that control the muscles of the body, and the brain is also affected, and for which there is no known cure to date. He was about 21 years of age when the malady came on, and became progressively worse so that in a few years he had to be confined to a wheelchair as he became increasingly weak and could no longer bear the weight of his body on his legs.
He was given two to three years at most to live: such patients die from respiratory failure because the breathing muscles weaken and make them vulnerable to lung infection. This in fact happened to him in 1985 when he had to be put on a ventilator in Switzerland, and at some stage the doctors advised that artificial respiration be stopped – and he would die. But his wife refused and took him back to Cambridge. And the rest is history, as the saying goes. That he lived so long, all of 55 years, with the disease is a mystery to medical science; no doubt an explanation will come our way one day.
But thank God – he wouldn’t like that! – he did, for that allowed his mind to wander across the cosmos and come up with pioneering results as he tried to answer questions dear to him: what are the origins of the universe? How does the universe function? What was there before the Big Bang? Why is there a universe at all?
As he once said: ‘My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe: why it is as it is, and why it exists at all’. As the scientific community mourned and tributes started to pour in, that he lived for so many years after his diagnosis and made such seminal contributions to cosmology is a testament to how he fought the odds against his adversity. This is best expressed in his own words: ‘When I turned 21, my expectations were reduced to zero. It was important that I came to appreciate what I did have. Although I was unfortunate to get motor neurone disease, I’ve been very fortunate in almost everything else. I’ve been lucky to work in theoretical physics at a fascinating time, and it’s one of the few areas in which my disability is not a serious handicap. It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life is, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and at life in general’.
No wonder therefore that he was looked up to as role model for disabled people all around the globe: he spoke at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. His disability gave him a new sense of purpose and lust for life: ‘Because every day could be my last, I have a desire to make the most of every single minute,’ he had said. As his children said in a statement after his death, ‘His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.’
My own accrued interest in his work on Black Holes and other aspects of the universe came about much later after I had become familiar about his disease. I had always been interested in the origins of life from my college days studying biology, and I have made it a point to keep myself updated on the subject. It goes without saying that the origin of life is tied up with the origin of the universe, and so when I realized that that was what Stephen Hawking was working on I tried to understand in conceptual terms – since the maths and physics were too complicated for me – the nature and direction of his thinking and how he was formulating his thoughts.
Since, as I have mentioned, the origins of life and the universe are related, the issue to my mind was what was the nature of this relation in causal terms. The reason for my interest was that around that time I started to study the Hindu texts known as the Vedanta, first under Swami Pranava at the Chinmaya Mission. And, among other things, the core quest of Vedanta is exactly that expressed by Stephen Hawking: What are the origins of the universe? How does the universe function? What was there before the Big Bang? Why is there a universe at all?
As I went deeper into Vedanta, I was amazed to discover that there were parallels between the search to this answer through physics – which in science is the only path to explore the fundamental reality of the universe – and through Vedanta. There are many aspects which cannot be dealt with in this short article, but what I would say is that there are not only parallels but also a convergence of thinking at a most fundamental level between these two streams of thought, although the methodologies differ. This fact only adds to the beauty and the excitement of the quest, as my gurus have revealed to me. By definition, science will only reach this far, because it operates within the space-time continuum and conceptually cannot go beyond that.
But never mind, as the exhilaration rests not in the destination but in the journey, as Stephen Hawking so eminently demonstrated to the world. To give an illustration of a conceptual parallel, I remember having a flash on reading that particles could escape from a Black Hole in the form of what is known as Hawking Radiation – since no information is lost in the universe – to the effect that ‘Hey, this explains reincarnation!’
There is much to learn, to explore, and to enjoy as one progresses on the path of deeper and deeper understanding through logic and reason, which is only what Stephen Hawking could do – he was the epitome of the primacy of mind over matter. Because in his case, his body was only a vehicle for his mind. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, as a person discards his old clothes and changes into new ones, so does the atman discard the old or diseased body to take a new one. (The atman refers to the real self beyond ego or false self. It is often referred to as ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ and indicates our true self or essence which underlies our existence.)
Stephen Hawking’s atman has only discarded the body. As this atman braved adversity to delve into the mysteries of the universe, why don’t we too take up this beautiful quest? Let us end with these equally beautiful words from him: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’
Enough reason to explore our home, like he did, and make it even better for the people we love to live in…
* Published in print edition on 25 March 2018