Stephen Hawking, you will be missed

When my colleagues enter my office, they immediately notice the famous photograph of the Solvay congress which brings the likes of Einstein, Curie, Dirac, and Schrödinger (among still other greats) in the same frame. My office, like a temple, therefore houses some of my idols who, it seems, literally look to the future (an ability they also demonstrated well in the past), with a combined vision peering through the frame, to provide motivation, inspiration, and direction. This is the phrontistery for the child within me who still remains—partly a scientist, partly an artist, but an explorer on the whole.

When I look into the past, my present self realises that it is in agreement—with my fourteen-year-old self, on how inspiring and entertaining A Brief History of Time was; with my nineteen-year-old-self, on how intimidating was On the Shoulders of Giants; and on how beautifully Hawking had led each of my more-recent-selves through astrophysics, as each version of me meandered through The Universe in a Nutshell, The Theory of Everything, and God Created the Integers (among other writings), making the understanding of the infinite, almost a religious pursuit in the process.

And pursue I did, armed with an interest in exploring the unknown, and a decent aptitude for mathematics (with the consequence of equating any established mathematical truth to the word of God … for the inability of mankind to refute the former, and the reluctance to refute the latter). I was at peace, connected with my senses, almost in a meditative state—unfazed by, and inert to the passing of those hours post-midnight. I speak for myself when I say that I have been high on mathematics more than even music—I have romanced with numbers and equations way more than I have flirted with musical notes.

Our education system makes clear distinctions between the science(s), commerce, and art(s). Reading Hawking’s books, therefore, offered genuine liberation
So I have been childish, religious, and even romantic in my pursuits. I have also sometimes been a realist. For example, recently I had evening tea with Mr. Narayana Murthy (co-founder of Infosys) at the Delhi School of Economics on the occasion of Prof. Kaushik Basu’s 65th birthday. Mr. Murthy shared something interesting from his visits to several engineering institutes in India. He received no answer each time he asked students why the sky was blue. But, he got immediate (text-bookish) answers each time he asked students to explain the phenomenon of dispersion of light. Clearly there is an unquestionable impossibility assumed in the translation of scientific thought into jargon-free communication. The Indian education system can gain from broadening the tunnel of focus for students who are still at an impressionable age. It is often fitting for a science person to have artistic traits (and sometimes conversely—for an art person to have scientific traits). A narrow tunnel only leads to narrow success stories. I call this the “stand-on” effect, to use a nautical metaphor for the vessel of one’s life when the opportunity to give way to new ideas presents itself at crossing situations. There are many who still prefer to stand on their predetermined career paths, often influenced by societal norms.

Our education system makes clear distinctions between the science(s), commerce, and art(s). Reading Hawking’s books, therefore, offered genuine liberation, for they forced me to unify my scientific and artistic selves to enrich my imagination. As a social scientist, I enjoy research and teaching, and frequently take interest in economic, socio-psychological, and geopolitical state of affairs around us. The University of Cambridge has a culture where academics of different disciplines regularly meet up over drinks to discuss general affairs. I had a taste of this culture when I shared the same table with a pilot, a biophysicist, and a geneticist when I visited Cambridge in 2016. I wish I had met Hawking then!

I intend to read The Grand Design next, to learn more about this vast universe, hoping that the sense of wonder will help the child within me, to comprehend the beauty of the infinite, from the perspective of a man who had an opinion on all matters from global warming to terrorism in our planet that retains the stature of a mere dot in this vastness. Given today’s state of affairs, I can only hope that the infinite celestial entity is too important to entertain the leptological interests of those who take religious matters very seriously. Hawking rests in the holy Westminster Abbey today. Clearly there must be something sacred about science … for after all, even religion embraces it as it evolves!

The author is New Generation Network Fellow, Queensland University of Technology, Australia, and Honorary Fellow, Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne