Stephen Hawking Spent His Life Defying the Odds

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

Stephen Hawking experiences the sensation of weightlessness during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft owned by Zero Gravity Corp. in 2007.
Stephen Hawking experiences the sensation of weightlessness during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft owned by Zero Gravity Corp. in 2007. (photo: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network)

The thing that I noticed most over the years about the response of people who met Stephen Hawking for the first time was the weight of emotion that suddenly overcame them. This was even more obvious in public venues, when Stephen, who enjoyed being out in the fresh air wherever and whenever possible, was recognized by people who were least expecting the encounter.

When Stephen Hawking entered the room, even the most celebrated of celebrities knew that they were well and truly outranked.

In this age of reality-TV stars, who pout their way to a digital image that they seek only to monetize as widely and as frequently as possible, Stephen Hawking stood out as someone who acted, spoke and wrote with an integrity that surpassed all else. Looking back over the past 50 years, I find it hard to find anyone with greater recognition — and certainly, with the possible exception of St. John Paul II, and more recently Queen Elizabeth II and Muhammad Ali, no one has gotten close to possessing the same global “brand” that was Stephen Hawking.

When he passed away Tuesday evening, Stephen Hawking fulfilled a prophecy made in 1964 when he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) and given, at most, a couple of years to live. The title of the obituary in the scientific journal Nature summed up the scientist with the phrase “defying the odds,” which is precisely what Professor Hawking managed year after year. And during those times, even amid the most challenging of circumstances, he breached boundary after boundary with his scientific work.

Stephen was the most prominent scientist of the academicians at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. His encounters with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are well documented, and, in fact, the video recording of his meeting with Pope Francis is poignant and moving.

There have been some questions about the contradiction inherent in Stephen Hawking’s well-known atheism and his membership of the Pontifical Academy, but as we know, membership of that academy is not restricted to Christians or people of faith.

As the chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation, and in my own professional career as the CEO of a quantum computing company, I am asked if I see problems between a reconciliation of faith and science. Apart from citing the very long list of accomplished Christian scientists, starting with Msgr. George Lemaître, the “Father of the Big Bang,” I speak about the approach that Father Hans Urs Von Balthasar took to the issue of reason versus revelation.

My own journey toward Christ is very much intertwined with a slow but inevitable appreciation of what Balthasar describes, very fittingly, as Christ’s “absolute singularity,” and this determinedly Christocentric point of view gives context to all that I do.

Stephen Hawking’s approach to God remained consistent for the larger part of his life. His use of the famous phrase “to know the mind of God,” when describing the motivation for his scientific research into the fundamental “theory of everything” (where he has tried to unite relativity with quantum mechanics) was metaphorical at best. However, there were times when the mystery of human life, particularly when encountered through music (Hawking was a great fan of Wagner, for example) would provide him with a reason to pause and reflect.

I don’t know if those times led to anything more profound from a conventional Christian point of view, but I do know that Hawking will long be remembered for his contribution to the list of great human achievements that Balthasar described as “relative singularities”:

“For a moment the contemporary world is taken aback; then people begin to absorb the work and to speak in the newly minted language (hence such terms as the ‘age of Goethe’ or ‘age of Shakespeare’) with a taken-for-granted ease, as though they had invented it themselves. The unique word, however, makes itself comprehensible through its own self; and the greater a work of art, the more extensive the cultural sphere it dominates will be.”

It remains to be seen if our successors will come to see the latter part of the 20th century as the “Age of Hawking,” but what is clear to me is that relative singularities all depend upon powers greater than and external to ourselves, and apart from the irony in the fact that the work that Stephen Hawking will best be known for is the scientific singularities that we know as black holes, as Christians we know that God ranges across all time and all space.

As inaugural and current chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation, I got to know Stephen on a personal level. It is a privilege that is not easily described, and in the very short time since he passed away from this life, I have found it almost impossible to answer the question, “What was Stephen like?” It is, of course, an entirely fair question, and I think that the quote that his family released yesterday is probably as good of a short answer to the question as we will ever get:

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” his children Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement. “His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor inspired people across the world. He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

His family’s reference to Stephen’s point about love fills me still with the belief that Professor Hawking perhaps saw the same external force that transcends us all and makes of even the greatest of us merely “relative” singularities.

My personal favorite of all Stephen Hawking quotes is perhaps the best way to conclude this short tribute to a very great scientist and human being:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Ilyas Khan, a Catholic convert from Islam, is the chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation.

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