I was curious about how things work from a very early age. Much to the displeasure of my poor parents, I was often taking things apart to see what made them tick, sometimes putting those things back together…and sometimes not. Sometimes those widgets and doo-dads had parts, man. Do you have any idea how many different things you can do with a DC motor? I’m not bloody likely to put that back where I found it!
It didn’t mater what a thing was – I wanted to understand it. It’s just water? Well, why does it behave the way it does? Why is it different from a rock? Why do we need it? Most of the stuff I wanted to understand, I could figure out the answer to, either by breaking it in some spectacular way, by asking my dad about it, or by reading about it. The only thing that really ever defeated me (the only thing I cared about at that age, anyway – I would discover girls later) was the universe. Such as: how big is it? What shape does it assume? What’s on the other side? I couldn’t find those questions anywhere (this was well before the internet, mind you, back when you had to walk to this ancient place of learning called a library (lie-brair-ry) to read these things called books (buks) – they’re like the internet but with no scroll bar or cat videos).
So, not being able to answer these questions kind of pissed me off. And then, almost as though my prayer had been answered, A Brief History of Time was published and my dear old mom went out and got me a copy. I was either ten or eleven at the time. I won’t pretend that I understood all of it but an awful lot of what Hawking wrote seemed to make some good sense to me; and besides, it was a bit of an epiphany to me that there probably weren’t that many real problems we couldn’t solve without a little bit of thought, persistence, and ingenuity. Believe me, when you’re eleven and ask the question, “How big is the universe?” and there’s a person out there who can say with authority, “We’re pretty sure it’s this big, and here’s all of the data and math to prove it,” well…that’s a hell of a thing isn’t it?
Stephen Hawking was one of my earliest heroes (outside of the ones who raised me, of course) and I’ve spent a few days processing his exit from the world. Sometimes I turn a great big circle and look at all of the stupid out there (and there is so very much of it, isn’t there?) and I can’t help but wonder if his greatness was wasted on this place. But this is an incredibly selfish way to view a man’s life. He didn’t know the vast majority of the people who knew of him and, despite any general leanings of altruism, the loss of a few of us wouldn’t have impacted him terribly much.
Viewing his loss as a loss to the world is selfish, though we can’t help but do so; his loss being as tremendous as it was. But from his point of view, I’m sure the man wanted to live his life the best way he could and attempt to solve a few puzzlers while he was here. I do not believe he sought prestige, fame, or acceptance. I think only that he wanted to understand and then share those things he understood with the rest of us assholes.
He was diagnosed with ALS in his twenties and his doctors gave him a two-year life expectancy. He married, had children, and later became a grandfather. He lived to be seventy six years old and discovered the way to a full, productive, and beautiful life despite tremendous challenges and setbacks.
I am not sorry.