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Sunday 22 April 2018
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Commentary

The Theory of Everything

So what do cosmologists worship then?

One single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe.

Really? What’s the equation?

Well, that is the question… I’m not quite sure. But I intend to find out.

A PORTAL closed on the mind of Stephen Hawking this week, the British physicist that transformed the world of science with his fascination over black holes in space.

The New York Times described him as someone who “roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe … becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity.”

Writing about a scientist in a column about culture and the arts is not as far-fetched as you might think. You see, not only did Prof Hawking inspire millions with his determination and thirst for life, but his life and work were immortalised by exceptional performers, and documented in popular culture, from films to television and animated cartoons.

British actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. The opening quote is from the scene when Stephen meets his wife Jane for the first time. Benedict Cumberbatch, famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, was the first to portray him in the BBC film Hawking. And the professor appeared as himself in Star Trek — New Generation.

In 1963, at age 22, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS for short), “a neuromuscular wasting disease” that affected his ability to walk and his speech as well. Back then, he was only given a few years to live. Yet, it seemed that the more his physical self deteriorated, the sharper his mind became.

The BBC notes that in 1979, “he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge — a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton,” the British physicist and mathematician “most famous for his law of gravitation.”

In 1988, his book A Brief History of Time was published; to date it has sold more than ten million copies.

People who knew him speak of his sense of humour.

The physicist obviously never took himself too seriously. Late night comedian and talk show host John Oliver asked Hawking, “You’ve stated that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes … does that mean there’s a universe out there where I am smarter than you? “Yes,”

Hawking replied from his wheelchair, his lips bending up into a slight smile. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”

He had been confined to a wheelchair for over 30 years, but I was startled to see an online debate over talking about his disability when recalling his achievements. For example, saying that he achieved what he did “in spite of his disability.” Disability? It never even occurred to me to think of him in that way.

For me, his brilliance and joie de vivre came first; everything else was part of his mystique. He did not believe in God, though he’s quoted as saying, “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”

However, I always saw his confinement to a wheelchair as spiritual, and, yes, cosmic. Think about it, pretty much nothing else in his body worked, except his mind.

In spite of his genius, perhaps because of it, Hawking connected with people from all realities. For many years, he could only communicate through a voice synthesiser but he never stopped thinking and contributing to the world of science and the arts.

Stephen Hawking certainly inspired me as an artist, moreso as a dancer. The greatest fear of the dancer is, well, not to be able to dance; to lose the physical ability to move. Ironically, this is ultimately the fate of many dancers anyway — gnarled feet, knees with no more cartilage, back pain — the price that we pay for many hours of pushing our bodies to the limit.

But dancers never stop dancing. Even if they have to sit and teach or choreograph, that’s what they do. Artists never stop painting or singing or making music. When their physical bodies are no longer able to cope with the demands of their profession, their minds become hyperactive, absorbing and channelling their creativity in different ways.

Hawking’s life is thus a clarion call to artists that we need not be afraid of ageing or losing our physical selves. Rather, we should take his advice and continue to look at the stars, instead of at of our feet.

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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