It has been 10 years since cosmologist Neil Turok had what he thought would be a difficult conversation with Stephen Hawking, then his close and more senior collaborator in the department of applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge.
Dr. Turok was mulling an offer to lead the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., then a fledgling research organization founded by Canadian entrepreneur-philanthropist Mike Lazaridis.
“I went to see Stephen rather shamefacedly to say that I was thinking of moving,” Dr. Turok said. When he explained Perimeter’s focus on quantum theory and spacetime, Prof. Hawking’s reaction was immediate.
“His eyes just lit up,” Dr. Turok said. “ He realized this was a visionary thing and that it resonated with his interests very strongly.”
Not only did Prof. Hawking urge him to go, “From that day, he basically said, ’I will come. I will visit,’” Dr. Turok said.
Two years later, Prof. Hawking was the first of Perimeter’s visiting research chairs, helping the Canadian institute raise its scientific stature and expand its public profile.
The visit is one of many memories Dr. Turok said flooded back when he heard from Prof. Hawking’s family on Wednesday morning that his former collaborator and scientific sparring partner had died peacefully at home at the age of 76.
The wheelchair-bound Prof. Hawking has left a mark few scientists in any field could hope to achieve. Part of it was certainly the public’s enduring fascination with a man who was physically challenged at every turn, facing a death sentence because of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and yet able to direct his mind and make a major contribution to humanity’s understanding of the cosmos. Part of it was the status his celebrity conferred, as an author of best selling books, a subject of Hollywood films, an unmistakable (if synthesized) voice for science and an ongoing generator of pop culture references, including his appearances in animated form on The Simpsons.
But underlying all of that, Dr. Turok said, was a warm, funny and courageous human being who was determined not to be left on the sidelines because of his circumstances.
“He was unfailingly generous,” Dr. Turok said of Dr. Hawking’s endorsement of Perimeter and its objectives. The most recent example came last September, when Dr. Hawking agreed to lend his name to a new five-year postdoctoral fellowship in cosmology at the institute.
“We haven’t yet appointed anyone [to the fellowship],” Dr. Turok added. “It’s got to be someone extraordinary.”
Once known for running his motorized wheelchair over the feet of those who stood in his way in the hallways and streets of Cambridge, Prof. Hawking later became an indefatigable world traveller whose appearances from China to the West Bank rarely failed to make headlines.
During a visit to Canada, he ventured into a mine shaft two kilometres below Sudbury, Ont. to tour what would become a Nobel-prize winning particle physics experiment. On another occasion, during a physics conference in Banff, he insisted in being taken into the mountains to see one of the lakes in the area, regardless of the logistical difficulties.
“You realized that if he didn’t insist, things wouldn’t happen.” said William Unruh, a theoretical physicist at the University of British Columbia and a contemporary of Prof. Hawking.
The refusal to melt into the background was a big part of how Prof. Hawking maintained his scientific relevance as his disease progressed, costing him his mobility and speech. At that point, a team of collaborators, students and a range of mechanical aides were deployed so that he could continue to wield his agile intellect on the often contentious battleground of theoretical physics.
Hélène Mialet, an anthropologist at York University in Toronto, found this symbiotic relationship so fascinating she asked Prof. Hawking if she could study it. She wrote papers and books based on her results, including Hawking Incorporated, published in 2012.
Dr. Mialet said Prof. Hawking’s reality defied the stereotype of an isolated genius. Rather, his social interactions and the tools that allowed him to translate his mathematical thoughts into pictures and words, provided an unusually open window into how theoretical physics is done.
“Because of his disability, he was making visible what we normally don’t see,” Dr. Mialet said.
Dr. Turok said social interaction and a quick wit were key to Dr. Hawking’s success.
“He had an incredible way of telling just the right joke at the right moment,” he said, recounting an occasion when he and Dr. Hawking visited Mr. Lazaridis at his home on Lake Huron, part of which was still under construction. The architect for the project was there too, and explained what work remained to be done.
“It was: ’This is supposed to go here, and that is supposed to go there,” Dr. Turok said. Eventually, Dr. Hawking tapped out a thank you on his word processor. But instead of complimenting his host on an afternoon “full of surprises”, he chose “full of supposes.”
“Everybody burst out laughing,” Dr. Turok said.
The Globe and Mail, March 15, 2018