New Delhi: Physically bound to the wheelchair, Stephen Hawking reached out into the depths of the universe with his mind and decoded the mysterious cosmos for the common people – that is how the British physicist was remembered by his Indian student today.
When you think about the human spirit, you think about Stephen Hawking, said astrophysicist Somak Raychaudhury, director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune, who was a student of Hawking at University of Cambridge.
Known for his groundbreaking work with black holes and relativity, Hawking was a household name for his resilient spirit to explore the expanse of the universe despite being confined to the wheelchair.
“He was my teacher, and I knew him from a time when he could speak. Personally, it’s a huge loss. Hawking is special because he is larger than life,” Raychaudhury said.
“The man in the street knows Hawking’s name, not because of his research on black holes – the common person may not understand what Hawking did on black holes,” said Raychaudhury, who obtained a PhD in astrophysics from Cambridge.
“They know him because he was a brain in a bottle, he could hardly move, and yet in spite of being given two years to live at the age of 20, he lived till 76 and tackled head on every obstacle in life,” he said
“That is the human spirit – you think about the human spirit and you think about Stephen Hawking,” he added.
Hawking suffered from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neurodegenerative disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is usually fatal within a few years.
He was diagnosed in 1963 when he was 21, and doctors initially only gave him a few years to live.
However, he went on to study at Cambridge and became one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Albert Einstein.
The disease left Hawking wheelchair-bound and paralysed. He was able to move only a few fingers on one hand and was completely dependent on others or on technology for virtually everything — bathing, dressing, eating, even speech.
Known for his unique way of speaking while living his life in a wheelchair, Hawking became an emblem of human determination and curiosity.
“In spite of his affliction, he carried on popularising science through his books and lectures,” said Raychaudhury.
“Anyone who was confined to the wheelchair and was also given two years to live at the age of twenty would not take on the world in all these spheres,” he said.
From denying the existence of God to asserting his belief in the existence of alien life, Hawking did not shy away from expressing his opinions on various things.
He continued to be in news for his controversial statements on the impending doom of mankind and his distrust of the ever-developing artificial intelligence systems.
His book A Brief History of Time was what brought his science to the common people and rocketed Hawking to stardom.
Published for the first time in 1988, the title made the Guinness Book of Records after it stayed on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unprecedented 237 weeks.
It sold 10 million copies and was translated into 40 different languages.
“I attended the set of lectures that became the record-breaking book A Brief History of Time. It was given in a set of public lectures during my first year in Cambridge,” said Raychaudhury.
“Even at the time, listening to those lectures every week one knew that this was something happening. He was explaining basics of cosmology in a way people hadn’t done before,” he said.
“It certainly the biggest science of the common people written in the last century. That turned so many people on to physics, cosmology and astrophysics,” he said.