A young man doomed to death in the two years, goes on to survive till the age of 76, and actually gives the world some of the most mind-boggling theories of the universe. This is a true story, the one we are all familiar with. The man is none other than Stephen William Hawking, who passed away on 14th March 2018.
Stephen Hawking, born in 1942, is acclaimed today as one of the greatest theoretical physicists ever. He was Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at University of Cambridge. He collaborated with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems and also predicted that black holes emit radiation, which is now known as Hawking Radiation. Hawking was the first man to come up with a theory of cosmology that brought together the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He was a fervent supporter of the many-worlds interpretation (MWI), a hypothesis in quantum mechanics implying that historical reality is a many-branched tree, wherein every possible quantum outcome takes place, instead of the conventional notion that reality has a single unfolding history.
Hawking received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the most important civilian award in the United States. In 2002, he was ranked 25th among the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll. He appeared on the British Sunday Times best-seller list for a world record of 237 weeks for his book ‘A Brief History of Time’.
Hawking had a rare motor neuronal disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that gradually paralysed him over the years. Even after losing his speech, he was still able to communicate using a speech generating device. He was told by his doctor that he would only live for two years when he got this tragic disease, yet he lived a lot longer, to the age of 76, surprising everyone. Not many people around him believed that he would achieve much, given his impaired condition, but he proved them wrong there too.
Stephen Hawking is quite an inspiring figure for many people here in Goa. I spoke to some citizens from various fields of life to explore their perceptions about this great scientist.
José Lourenço, a Margao-based civil engineer says, “The fact that he was paralyzed and using a wheelchair did not stop him from exploring the greatest mysteries of the universe. He also had a great sense of humour. His book ‘A Brief History of Time’ should be read by all college students.” Speaking about disability access, he said, “In India, disabled people or differently abled people don’t have adequate access to buildings. This access needs to be provided. Medical support and equipment also need to be brought to international standards.”
Stephanie Fernandes, a financial analyst from Cansaulim, says, “Hawking’s ability to motivate millions around the globe despite his disability is what I admire most about him. His death saddened me. He was a man of courage and immense knowledge in the field of sciences. He was a huge influence on the people around the world.”
“He is not only an inspiration in the field of physics, but he also inspired people around the world who had disabilities,” says Rebecca Fernandes, 22, a medical doctor. “He was a constant presence in my life in my high school years, his theories had a prominent place in my science education.”
Naviya Thomas, also a young doctor working in Goa says, “His dedication as a scientist was amazing. If I were to rank him on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give him a 15! In spite of his disabilities, he lived his life to the fullest. He was always very sarcastic and full of life. It is often said that you shouldn’t die before your death. So he is someone who proved that well.”
Salil Chaturvedi is a well-known writer and disability activist based in Chorao, Goa. “The most fascinating aspect of Hawking is the paradox that a man so confined in his physical aspect could let his mind soar across the cosmos,” says Chaturvedi, who is also a wheelchair user.
So how can society help those with disabilities achieve their dreams and goals, I asked him. “We have to eliminate these differences between disabled and abled people, by using technology to provide access to education, public spaces, transportation and facilities,” he replied. “We also need to stop looking at people with disabilities as ‘lesser’ in any way. We are asking for an attitudinal shift, to ‘Ramp the mind’!”
He feels a tech-focussed approach could empower those with disabilities. “Today one can even run a company from home, using Internet banking and doing online buying and selling,” asserts Chaturvedi.
There can be no doubt that Man can reach fantastic heights of achievement even under the most confined and difficult conditions. Stephen Hawking has clearly shown us that. It is now up to our authorities and us to erase all these barriers that restrict access for the differently abled in everyday life. Let’s ramp up our minds!