I set my Whatsapp status, on Wednesday, to a screenshot of a tweet showing the coincidence of the birth and death dates of scientific geniuses Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. A contact’s comment on the photo was “Never knew him” referring to Hawking whose death had been announced early that morning.
Given I learned much about what I now know about Hawking on Wednesday, I also never really knew him. The name only resonated when I heard or thought of Dawkins or Hitchens. If you know the relationship between the three, well, you may be a genius.
Otherwise, Stephen Hawking had been, for me, that highly regarded scientist always pictured in a chair with a bit of a bend in his head. To investigate the cause of his condition and try to match it with the brilliance with which he was associated, was never really something I came up to wanting to do. What could I possibly be intrigued about in a person (my mind) associated with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens? For me, no matter how much such persons knew, there was always something definitely naive about their denial of the afterlife and solely scientific view of the universe. Physics does not explain everything and never will, and as long as I do not absolutely need knowledge of the galaxies and black holes to live a happy life, I would be alright never meeting or famzing about these cool guys.
For the record, I like Physics; I just never did so well in it back then. I think I had a poor teacher at some point after Mr Alade, the genius who never used a note or textbook.
This Wednesday, after Hawking’s death was announced, my attention was drawn, not to his Physics or his ‘boldness in the dark’, but to the immense abilities of a mind trapped in a body. Diagnosed of the degenerative disease ALS at twenty-one, he was not expected to leave beyond another 30 months. He smashed past 70 years though, living long enough to go to space, play poker with Newton and Einstein in a movie, and see his grand children. He earned a first class first degree, a PhD and remained lucid and capable enough to lead scientific thought in the most important aspects of his discipline for two generations. He was a strong voice against frequent attacks on the National Health Service by the Conservative party in the UK, and was the de facto celebrity scientist till his death.
He did all that with a body and physical appearance that was undesirable. It was one neither he nor science could do anything about, but which he was not in a hurry to leave. He may not have been a person of faith, but it is the newest testament to a noble idea that what makes life worth living is not in what the body is but in what the mind does. Aristotle, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, F.D. Roosevelt, Stevie Wonder, Teresa of Calcutta; all that excellence and genius, it was all in their mind.
Lionel Messi, the greatest footballer of all time, does it like no one else, from his mind.
Which is why we should be outraged at the growing discomfort about people who do not appear to look like us, whose care we believe will be too much burden for the ease of our own lives. There is a burgeoning normalization of the genocide of pre-born people with Down Syndrome. The rate in Iceland is nearly 100% and a writer in the Washington Post believes this should be a right for women everywhere. The right is that if a mother, during a pre-natal screening, sees something she does not want in her baby – a chromosomal disability, a surplus gender, a potential dullness in math or an aboriginal skin colour – she should have the right to get rid of it before birth. What then happens if, one day, technology enables us to detect growth defects or ALS before birth? Are we to never have a Messi or Hawking in the world again, substituting our comfort in not handling their bodies for the beauty and brilliance their minds bring?
After another opportunity to witness his majesty against Chelsea, I doubt we will actually have another Messi. But I definitely do not look forward to a day when pre-born babies with his bodily defect become a burden to be prevented.
And I wish Hawking had, in his life, been “afraid of the dark”. Tributes to him have included “rest in peace” which I know usually leads to possessing a bright, agile, impassible, subtle body, able to, without pain, bridge space and time in the instance of the mind, and arguably the model reward for the bestselling author of ‘A Brief History of Time’.