Great armchair traveller gone

March 16, 2018

Stephen Hawking, the greatest armchair traveller of all time.

Many of us make great journeys from the depth of our armchairs.

Curl up with a good book or sink into Netflix, and suddenly there you are, scything your way through the depths of the remotest jungle or waving from the highest peak in the Andes.

But the greatest armchair traveller of all time was surely Stephen Hawking.

From his electronic chair he travelled to the outer edges of the cosmos, then returned and tried to explain how it all works to brick-headed dolts like you and me.

Yes, I bought his best-seller A Brief History of Time when it was published in 1988.

And yes, I got to about page 73 and gave up.

If this was science made simple then my mind must be a lot simpler than the simplest thought that Hawking could utter.

That’s okay — I have trouble understanding Bunnings’ DIY barbecue instructions, so a failure to grasp the framework of the cosmos came as no surprise.

Nevertheless, when news of Hawking’s death flashed across the infinite news feeds, I reached for his blockbuster book once again.

On Wednesday night I blew the dust off its spine and sat on my couch in the wee hours and jumped into his ocean of black holes and event horizons and singularities.

I think I lasted until about page 50 before sleep drowned me.

But I’m still intrigued by the book.

It’s like a Rubik’s cube or a Sudoku puzzle that irritates as much as it fascinates.

Hawking and his fellow theoretical physicists toil away in the coal cellars of academia discovering things so far reaching and impossible to understand that they seem superhuman.

But the thing about Hawking is that he was all too human.

His disability reminded us of the frailness of this shell we carry with us all our lives.

His remarkable mind, which could make leaps of Olympic proportions, was trapped in a body that just didn’t work.

So apart from the incredible legacy of knowledge he leaves behind, he also leaves a powerful reminder that people are never what they seem.

Through appearances on chat shows and pop culture series, such as The Simpsons and Futurama with his weird disembodied electronic voice, he became the most famous disabled person in the world.

He was a genius on an Olympian scale, he asked the most arcane questions of our time and beavered away in dreary university back rooms — but he was a fun guy.

Ten years ago Hawking held a party for time travellers.

He guzzled champagne, sat in his wheelchair surrounded by balloons in his Cambridge University rooms and waited and waited — but nobody came.

Then he sent out invitations after it was all over.

He hoped somebody in the future would find an invite and come to his party.

He said the fact that he sat alone with his champagne was evidence that time travel was not possible.

He made science fascinating and full of wonder — even for dolts like me.

In an increasingly populist world, which pushes back against science and relies on magic and faith for explanations of the universe, Hawking put humanity, reason and logic front and centre.

Here’s to more of that — served with bubbles.

John Lewis is chief of staff at The News.

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