[AI] Brave, brilliant and moving

avinash shahi shahi88avinash at gmail.com
Sat Jul 11 02:24:45 PDT 2015

Bikash Sinha
In Cambridge, the swinging Sixties were a carnival time soaked in
Beatle-mania, long hair and blue jeans. British society was coming
out, at last, of the grip of Victorian prudery. Yet, with all the
massive changes in outlook, shades of Victoriana lingered on. There
was still some space for romantic love. The Cam, the weeping willows
and the Backs created a feeling for romance. I arrived there in 1964
and took on this headiness, head on.

In 1962, unknown to me and to many others, a young Oxford graduate had
arrived in Cambridge. His name was Stephen Hawking. He was quite fit
then, with an unusual taste in clothes - black or royal blue corduroy
jacket with red bow tie. He was a research student in cosmology, under
Dennis Sciama. Sciama used to teach us mathematics. One can still
recall the precision and clarity of his lectures, and how he made
mathematics unusually exciting. Stephen, at that time, was known to be
a front-ranking researcher, but so many of that kind existed in
Cambridge that nobody paid much attention. We also came to know of a
young girl called Jane. She was not known very well on her own, but as
the girlfriend of Stephen Hawking, who soon started getting ill by the
day. Some even thought that she was a nurse.

So, it is wonderful to have come across Jane Hawking's book,
Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Its last sentence pushed
me to the edge of the real world, towards a world of abstract, serene
beauty. I am referring to the relationship between two people of
extraordinary calibre. Jane Hawking writes, "It certainly moved me
profoundly and made me reflect what a privilege it was to travel even
a short distance with him [Stephen] on the way to infinity."

Jane entered St Albans High School in the outskirts of London. As a
seven-year-old first-former in the early Fifties, she found, for a
short spell, a boy with floppy, golden-brown hair, who sat by the wall
in the next classroom: "We never spoke to each other, but I am sure
this early memory is to be trusted." Stephen was a pupil in that
school only for a term.

By 1963, Stephen had come a little closer to Jane, and irreversibly
fallen a victim to motor neuron disease. Fresh from Oxford, too, and
in Cambridge as a graduate student, Jane gushes about their first
encounter: "as the party drew to a close, we exchanged names and
addresses". The first unsure step towards romantic love (but of the
no-sex-please variety). An evening of theatre at the Old Vic, followed
by dinner, made Stephen penniless. They had to go back to the hall to
look for Jane's wallet, which may have fallen out there. They found
it, but suddenly the lights went off. This is how Jane describes what
happened next: "'Take my hand,' said Stephen authoritatively. I held
his hand and my breath, in silent admiration as he led me back to the
steps, up across the stage and out in the passage." Inevitably, they
ended up at the May Ball in June, after exams. But Stephen slowly and
surely got into the tunnel of depression, since the doctors did not
give him much hope.

So, for the first time in his life, as he confesses in My Brief
History, Stephen started to enjoy working hard. "Back in Cambridge,"
Jane writes movingly, "one dark wet Saturday evening in October he
hesitantly whispered a proposal of marriage to me. That moment
transformed our lives." Jane gave up all her plans to join the
diplomatic service, so that she could be with the man she loved.

On July 14, 1965, Stephen married his childhood sweetheart, Jane, in
the church of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. A whole new universe was about
to be discovered by Stephen, followed by the Hawking radiation from
black hole, one of the most original and impossibly creative
discoveries in modern science.

Life for the Hawkings was not so blissful. It was full of ups and
downs, even drama - the struggle of a hugely creative mind caged
within a crippled body, and of a modern woman totally dedicated to her
partner's well-being. The most wonderful fate awaited them - the birth
of their first child about two years after marriage. Jane describes
poignantly the stirring of life in her womb: "As dry leaves danced
through the streets before the biting December wind, Stephen and I
stood hand in hand at the back of the lofty cold church..... The
stirring words of the funeral service [of Mr Thatcher, their
neighbour], intoned as the coffin was carried into the church sent a
chilling shiver down my spine. Watching and listening, I was haunted
by the paradox that in one stroke, death had erased all the learnings,
the experience ... the memories of that life which we were taking our
leave while within me I was carrying the miraculous beginnings of a
new life... Beside me stood the child's father, young and vibrant
despite the onset of disability." Jane and Stephen became delirious
when their daughter, Lucy, arrived - and miracles of all miracles, Tim
arrived when Stephen was already wheelchair bound, and slowly losing
his speech.

I met Stephen properly (in the English sense) in 1974 at the
California Institute of Technology. He was already wheelchair bound,
but continuously gesticulating to Richard Feynman - eccentric
physicist and Nobel laureate - with his long fingers, as if he had got
hold of his favourite black hole. Then, Jane found Jonathan, and
Stephen got a trophy called Elaine. The Camelot of Jane and Stephen
was over. Eventually Elaine could'nt take it any more and left Stephen
at the mercy of a housekeeper and a nurse.

I last met a very frail Stephen Hawking at a banquet at King's
College, Cambridge, to celebrate fifty years of the department of
applied mathematics and theoretical physics in 2007. I gently reminded
him about Caltech 1974, and the young lady who was there said, "But
that was a long time ago." May be, I said, but for Hawking radiation
it was just yesterday. A long silence, followed by two words on the
screen, "May be." As I walked out of the hall into the glorious summer
evening, I pondered the eight hundred years of Cambridge University,
and that Hawking radiation, like the twinkling of an evening star,
would go on for the entire lifetime of the Universe. Jane Hawking
kindled the light that radiates across that infinite Universe - and
how bravely, how brilliantly, and how movingly.

Avinash Shahi
Doctoral student at Centre for Law and Governance JNU

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