We mourn the passing of Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent explorer of the biggest mysteries. A physicist with a philosopher’s mind.
But also a human being whose brilliance was wrought from terrifying adversity. The brightest of minds housed in a body that conspired to deny him his talent.
What we admire is how steely determination denied defeat, and how wonderful imagination soared perhaps even higher, because the only movement Hawking was allowed was that of the mind. Hawking touched points never touched by any human before.
Hawking was no saint, of course, and did not pretend to be. But also in this domain he mastered transformation, because he transformed his own humanity into true humanism.
You may ask what the sadness we feel by Stephen Hawking’s death has to do with seven. It has something to do with humanism and the preconditions for humanism.
Seven is the number of migrants drowning every day in the Mediterranean since the start of 2018. Those human beings we do not mourn like we mourn the death of Stephen Hawking. We do not mourn them despite all the adversity they faced and their terrible defeat. The reason is simple. The reason is that we do not have their life stories in front of us in the same fashion as we do for Hawking. It is very hard to empathise in abstract. Yet, also here Hawking has a lesson to teach us.
J.K. Rowling in her brilliant commencement address at Harvard in 2008 has explained to us that one of the most important features of imagination is the ability it confers upon us to be able to emphasise. Imagination allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. That is why the loss of Stephen Hawking is so painful – we can feel the loss of a unique individual. But Hawking himself could turn his imagination on to the most abstract concepts and live them. And he could get non-scientists to live the concepts as well, an ability he shared with Albert Einstein.
But Hawking was not only about the cosmos – he also turned his imagination to the human condition. Hence his humanism. We can create no finer epitaph for Stephen Hawking, his brilliance, imagination, suffering and humanity, than using our imagination not only to understand our world, but to empathise with the seven migrants that drown every day. To imagine their stories, their tragedies, and dream solutions that will stop the dying!