Death of Stephen Hawking: a scientific mind in the service of humanity

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“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all”.

The celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking died on March 14 in Cambridge. He was one of the greatest specialists in black holes. Along with his theoretical discoveries, from the explanation of the very existence of black holes – which the scientific community had been sceptical about up until the 1960s – to the “Hawking radiation” (according to this hypothesis, black holes emit a “black body” radiation), he became known around the world for trying to make the scientific mysteries of the universe more accessible to the general public. His 1988 book A Brief History of Time became a best seller and still enraptures all those who want to understand the beauties of the Milky Way.  

But Stephen Hawking had also, since the age of 21, fought against motor neurone disease, a terrible affliction which usually leads to complete paralysis and death in a few years. And yet this illness played a huge role in his way of perceiving the world and his place within humanity. In his 2013 autobiography, My Brief History, he tells us

“Not knowing what was going to happen to me or how rapidly the disease would progress, I was at a loose end. The doctors told me to go back to Cambridge and carry on with the research I had just started in general relativity and cosmology. But I was not making progress because I didn’t have much mathematical background – and anyway, it was hard to focus when I might not live long enough to finish my PhD. I felt somewhat of a tragic character. I took to listening to Wagner….

My dreams at that time, however, were rather disturbed. Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed anything worth doing. But shortly after I came out of the hospital, I dreamed that I was going to be executed. I suddenly realised that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I was reprieved. Another dream I had several times was that I would sacrifice my life to save others. After all, if I was going to die anyway, I might as well do some good”

Stephen Hawking is saying something fundamental here. At 21 the doctors gave him at best no more than a few years to live. He could then have burned the candle at both ends, thinking only of himself and the immediate moment – which was a bit like the way he had been living when he was a student in good health. But he chose another path: that of linking himself to a greater whole, humanity and its future: “I might as well do some good”. For him, the “good” was taking part in the general development of science and of our knowledge of the world.

In the conclusion to his autobiography, he explains the moral and intellectual flowering produced by the feeling of being a link in a very long chain, by having contributed the best of his capacities to the good of all:

When I was twenty-one and contracted motor neurone disease, I felt it was very unfair. Why should this happen to me? At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realise the potential I felt I had. But now, fifty years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life…I have travelled widely. I visited the Soviet Union seven times…I have also visited Japan six times, China three times, and every continent, including Antarctica, with the exception of Australia…My early work showed that classical general relativity broke down at singularities in the Big Bang and black holes. My later work has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time. It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I am happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe

Today, the whole of humanity seems to be suffering from a deep and potentially fatal malady: it no longer believes in its future. More exactly, the working class has forgotten what it is and what it is capable of. It has lost the perspective of a new world, which it alone can bring into being. This perspective has been trapped in the present, where minds are more and more infected by the spirit of every man for himself, by irrationality and fear. Stephen Hawking’s spirit should be an inspiration to us: even in the face of the worst, of imminent death, he rejected the egoistic illusions of the present instant and instead projected himself into the future of humanity through his scientific research.

Today however it is necessary to go beyond all individual solutions. While science contains within itself the potential for “doing good” for all, it is up to the proletariat, the revolutionary class, through organisation, solidarity and consciousness, to lead humanity out of its prehistory by freeing it from the yoke of capitalist exploitation. However great the scientific discoveries of the future, only the international victory of the proletariat can achieve the flowering of humanity.

Sousso, 18.4.18