by Maria Popova
A rare existential reflection from the man who set out to devise a theory of everything.
Central photo: Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)
At twenty-two, Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a rare motor disease — and given a few years to live. He lived for more than half a century thereafter. Despite the increasing bodily limitations inflicted by the incurable disease, he went on to soar with a limitless mind that has impacted the course of modern physics perhaps more profoundly than any scientist since Albert Einstein. His theory of what is now known as Hawking radiation — the thermal electromagnetic radiation which quantum phenomena on the event horizon cause a black hole to emit — revolutionized our understanding of the most powerful objects in the known universe and, in consequence, of the universe itself. His pursuit of a “theory of everything” adrenalized the scientific community and his landmark 1988 book A Brief History of Time awakened generations of lay readers to the splendor of physics, welding science to the rest of culture.
A different, complementary, more existential side of Hawking comes alive in an interview conducted shortly after the release of A Brief History of Time and found in the out-of-print treasure Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists(public library) — the 1990 collection of interviews by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer, exploring “the ways in which personal, philosophical, and social factors enter the scientific process,” which also gave us pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science, dark matter, and our never-ending quest to know the universe.
When asked how he would design the universe if he could design it any way he wanted, Hawking, beloved for his dry humor, answers:
It is like the anthropic argument: If I had designed it differently, it wouldn’t have produced me. So that is a meaningless question. I’m prepared to make do with the universe we have, and try to find out what it is like.
Turning over the question of meaning to Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s famous assertion that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” Hawking offers a laconic yet spirited counterpoint:
I don’t feel like that. I think that human intellectual history is a record of how we have come nearer and nearer to an understanding of the order in the universe. I’m proud of our achievement.
Complement with Errol Morris’s documentary about Hawking’s life, Hawking’s “theory of everything” animated in 150 seconds, and his lovely children’s book about time travel, co-written with his own daughter, then revisit another culture-shifting, Nobel-winning physicist — Richard Feynman — on the meaning of life.