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.

Caltech Professor dedicates Eckersley Lecture to Kadian Harding

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In the ranks of inspirational evenings, last night’s Eckersley lecture, given by Professor Tony Readhead of Caltech, will be up there in pole position. His talk, on Cosmology with the Microwave Background Radiation, was about, well, the universe – or the multiverse, if you are of that school (of chaotic inflationary cosmology which postulates the idea that our universe is but a speck within a multiverse).

Basing much of his talk on the most recent results from the Planck Space Mission and outlining his own work with developing state-of-the-art instrumentation, Tony took us back to the findings which indicate what was happening a mere 380,000 years after Big Bang. Great teachers, like great poets, have the ability to help audience’s understand the stupendous through analogy, so we were engaged with images as various as croutons in soup and questions such as “are we seeing merely dust on the windscreen or are we seeing the birth of the universe?” when deliberating on how to interpret the findings from Planck.

As with other great talks, this one delighted in the interconnectedness of things: man’s urge to create art linked to the timespan of the universe, for example. Perhaps above all, even for those of us for whom the higher reaches of science were outside our ken, we were caught in Tony’s lifelong wonder at the beauty of it all in, in particular, John Archibald Wheeler’s comment; “This is our universe, our museum of wonder and beauty, our cathedral.”

Tony dedicated his lecture to Kadian Harding, whose short time at Bedales was marked by this kind of wonder and enquiry. The lecture finished with a picture of the beautiful Kadian observatory and these exhortations side by side:

“Walk whichever way you want.” (Kadian Harding) “Make no mean plans.” (George Ellen Hale, Founder of Caltech)

Pictured: Bedales 6.1 science student Naveed Khalessi, who built the Kadian Observatory, shaking hands with Professor Anthony Readhead.


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.