Dignifying Humanity

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Author: Troy Organ
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,863 words

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[(essay date July-August 1989) In the following essay, Organ considers the humor in Hawking's writing.]

Stephen Hawking dignifies our humanity. He was born in 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo--as he likes to note. When he was diagnosed as having the illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, he dropped his graduate studies to consider what to do. Insights into life and its possibilities came with meeting and marrying Jane and in begetting three children--Robert, Lucy, and Timmy. For the past twenty years, he has been confined to his wheelchair. He has little control over his muscles, and he can no longer speak. Yet, he writes, "Apart from being unlucky enough to get ALS, or motor neuron disease, I have been fortunate in almost every other respect." He is the Lucasian Professor of Medicine at Cambridge University, a post once held by Newton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and is widely acclaimed as the most brilliant physicist since Einstein. The unified field theory to which Einstein unsuccessfully devoted the last twenty years of his life is now within reach of Hawking--at least, so many think. Hawking, however, has recently said that this theory will require the work of younger and more adventurous minds.

In 1982, Hawking decided to write a popular book about space and time. The result is A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. Carl Sagan says it is "a book about God . . . or perhaps about the absence of God . . . [since] a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, [has] nothing for a Creator to do." Sagan also describes the book as "lucid revelations on the frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and courage." I want to note another aspect of the book. Hawking's illness could understandably have produced Diogenean cynicism or Schopenhaurean pessimism. But it did not. I, as one of the philosophers whom Hawking says "have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories," wish to indicate my appreciation of Hawking and his book by noting the humor in his writing. I wish to call attention to Hawking's humorous observations about five subjects: Hawking himself, human beings in general, physicists, physics, and the universe.

Hawking says he chose to study theoretical physics because it is "all in the mind." No muscles are needed. "So my disability has not been a serious handicap." In 1985, he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheostomy operation. Now he speaks by means of a communications program, a speech synthesizer, and a small personal computer. The result, he says, is "I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice."

Physical movement for him is a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100002327