Hawking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

At a conference recently, I found myself lured into taking part in a competition to spot the famous person in a photograph of undergraduate rowers larking around in the Fellows’ Garden as members of University College, Oxford’s boat club: here is someone hanging upside down, there are chaps dressed as Lawrence of Arabia and here is a fellow holding out a handkerchief as if he is about to die heroically in front of a firing squad.  Recognising the place, because I had spent my undergraduate time there (once in the Fellows’ Garden urging on tortoises in the annual tortoise race) and knowing that Stephen Hawking had been an undergraduate there previously, I named him as the melodramatic, handkerchief wielding person and won a prize.  Here is the photo.

Hawking’s death was my starting item at early morning notices at Bedales on Tuesday: be attentive, I said, to what was being said and written after his death, because there is so much to admire and learn: courage – physical, intellectual and moral; the power of intellectual enquiry; determination – to keep on working and communicating to a wider audience who responded to Hawking’s additional genius for putting such complex ideas into lucid prose.  Being able to talk only with great difficulty and then reliant on his computerised speech, he had to use short sentences and be direct – a handy if unwonted discipline for a writer.

Reading Roger Penrose’s obituary in The Guardian, I was struck by two other things.

Hawking was highly regarded as a Physics undergraduate but did not take work particularly seriously at that stage and, although he took a first class degree, it was not an outstanding one – there were by this metric, plenty of more promising scientists.  It was his increased work rate and, perhaps, the additional energy that his sense of limited time left as a result of the diagnosis of ALS, a fatal degenerative disease, shortly after his 21st birthday, not long after the rowing photo was taken, that made him.

But perhaps the most notable other thing that occurred to me reading about his life and work was the extent to which scientific collaboration shaped his life.  There was only one Stephen Hawking and one megastar scientific celebrity, but his work was enabled by his series of collaborations – with Roger Penrose, Brandon Carter, James Bardeen and James Hartle, to name only some.

We will have a chance to hear more about this when Roger Penrose gives our annual Eckersley Lecture on 17 May.  Tickets are understandably scarce.