Among the Stars
A little effort goes a long way. A lot of effort creates miracles
This is Part 3 of our three part series on the biographies of genius.
Stephen Hawking was not destined for greatness. He had an improbable upbringing. He was born during the Nazi bombings of England. His father's family had a prosperous business, but his father lost all his money. His parents moved their family to a type of trailer in the countryside. The kids had access to clean air, nature, and an unorthodox education. Hawking, amazingly, did not learn to read until late in his childhood.
His father read to his children from the Bible every day, but his parents did not believe in God. It was just a culturally important book. Because of this type of ambivalence, they were never told not to think certain things, not to say certain things out of fear of punishment from God. Hawking was never forced to believe instead of think.
Despite that he was a mediocre student. He was bright, but unfocused and undisciplined, so much so that it wasn't immediately clear that he had any special intellectual ability. Later, through independent reading while in high school, he learned that he had a natural ability to understand mathematics as a type of language of expression. He said he did not, though, have an intuition for it the same way Einstein did.
He got into Oxford. He was okay enough, and had some family connection to the school, so it was basically a given that he should go. He did not become a magical student while there. He made friends, went to the pub, joined the rowing team. He writes that "the prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to either be brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard... was regarded as... the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary." To be seen striving, trying, to put in effort, was the social kiss of death.
He was skating through life. His plan was to get a fourth-class degree and then get a job with the government, doing something or other, and collect a paycheck and then a pension. It was respectable enough. It would be a decent story to tell at barbecues and at the pub.
But what was he thinking? Stephen Hawking was not a barbecue, pub, Sunday church gossip type of man. He was brought up by eccentric intellectuals, almost in the forest. He had natural gifts of expression, including mathematical expression. And he had the good fortune to be at Oxford. While an undergraduate, he developed an interest in cosmology, which was then not considered a science. It was almost a laughable field, but he loved it. Why not pursue it? out of fear of ridicule?
It was around this time that Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS. He was given two years to live. Yet he had also got married to a woman he very much loved, and started making friends with various professors who were interested in this bizarre field called cosmology.
He was torn. He wanted a different life. He could feel he was capable of something else. But this man who had no superstition nonetheless was afraid to be seen trying. Eventually, partly because he was told he was dying, and partly because he felt desire to provide for his wife, one day he decided, to Hell with it all. This town is small. These people are small-minded. I'm going to try. It was then that this average kid became Stephen Hawking.
Step one was to get into a PhD program. He had to devour everything he could on the field that he desired. He had to read, read, read, write, write, write. He went back and forth between Oxford and Cambridge to attend lectures, to discuss ideas with professors. Some asked him who he was, why was he there? He didn't care. He decided to commit social and class suicide, so he might as well go all the way.
But success does not happen overnight. At first he was dismissed as a low level intellectual who was interested in peculiar aspects of outer space that do not matter. Great minds cared about more important things. At least he wasn't a threat, though, and he had a certain amount of charm, so he was tolerated. According to Hawking he half earned, half charmed his way into a PhD program at Cambridge. But he was pawned off to lower level professors who were stuck in their middling careers.
And yet something happened. Because he was in a less desirable lab he had immense access to the professor and other tenured academics. He was free to do what he wanted, so he read everything he could, he wrote relentlessly, and he set out to discuss his ideas with anybody who would listen. He was not seen as competition, and he was persistent, so he was referred to other people who had similar ideas. Nobody tried to undercut him. They wanted him to stop bothering them.
The field he studied was called cosmology. Cosmology had to do with the shape and movement of the universe. It was a dusty field because no progress had been made since Einstein, and his theories had begun to be regarded as too complicated and perhaps wrong. The general theory of relativity predicted that the universe should be expanding. However even Einstein did not believe that. Everybody believed in a steady-state universe.
Hawking believed that Einstein's theories were correct, but he couldn't prove it. So he, as he says in his autobiography, "read old textbooks on general relativity and traveled up to lectures" every week at different universities with three fellow strivers. He wanted to make his name studying Einstein's general theory of relativity and figuring out what it meant, but Cambridge didn't take it seriously. He needed more information, more knowledge, so he and his wife traveled to Cornell, in New York, to take a summer course on the theory.
Here, he went to physics lectures by professors who seemed to have no fear of breaking tradition. There was something about the US that encourages it. Heritage was almost a cuss word. What somebody does is what matters, not somebody's background or birthplace.
Stephen Hawking adopted this mentality. Years ago he decided he would break free from his British class system and try. He studied something silly, but he devoured it. He was an outcast, a lone wolf. And yet this outcast striver was clearly doing something. He was so well read, so polished, that it started to dawn on people perhaps this Hawking fellow has something in him. When a star is in a town of squares, the star will be ridiculed. It takes time for people to realize that what appears misshapen is actually something special.
It cannot be understated that when Stephen Hawking decided to put in effort he went all the way. It was not easy. During his years at Cambridge his disease progressed. Movement became difficult. He started to use a wheelchair. His muscles began to waste away. But he was determined to make a name for himself.
In an office he found a copy of a new paper by an eminent researcher. There was going to be a lecture on it in a few days. It was about the steady-state universe. This was his chance. Hawking covertly read it and formed his mathematical counter arguments. He attended the speech and sat patiently. The question and answer period was predictable. Some easy ones and a lot of glowing You're so great type of trash. And then Hawking raised his hand. Who is this guy? Ignore him, that's the weirdo who studies cosmology. But then they called on him, and he delivered a devastating rebuke that made the speaker seethe. In front of the audience he accused Hawking of being a spy sent there to sabotage him.
Hawking did his PhD on matters related to the expansion of the universe. He had the courage to ask a question that, for some reason, nobody else had. Perhaps they were afraid. Einstein, as Newton did, believed that God created the universe as a single entity. It was created with some laws of physics, and then God did not intervene. But there was a Creator. If Einstein's theories were correct, though, it would seem that the universe is still in a period of creation, and our understanding of how God influences the universe might be called into question.
It was at that point that most people gave up. Incredible thinkers in England, Russia, Germany, stopped at the point when God might be called into question. Stephen Hawking pressed forward. He was attacked for trying to disprove God. He was not. He wanted to prove himself capable, and to prove humans capable, of understanding, as he says it, "the mind of God." His work and teamwork with a colleague taught us how the Big Bang might have happened, and how black holes might work.
By 1974 Hawking was confined to a wheelchair. This was the year that he first traveled to California, which forever changed him. He and his family went to Santa Barbara and Pasadena to spend time with a friend and do some research at Caltech. They were trying to detect radiation waves coming from outer space. Their idea was that if they could, then perhaps there would be a shift in the energies that would indicate whether they were expanding or contracting.
Stephen Hawking loved California. It was very welcoming to the handicapped and to people who used wheelchairs. This was the first time he used a motorized wheelchair. Leave it to the Americans.
At this time he was a star in cosmology, and yet, perhaps remembering his own time as a student, he selected a grad student from Caltech who didn't fit in, but who had heart. The student was raised in a small town in Alaska and was an evangelical Christian. He would read Hawking Bible passages every morning at breakfast. On paper, they were as different by class and ideology as could be, and yet every day they cooperated to try to understand the origins of the universe.
There was something about California. It was bright. It was new. It was open. Nobody cared about titles. They cared about effort. Hawking writes fondly of the "can-do attitude in America." That spirit was infectious. It was that same spirit that transformed Hawking many years earlier.
Stephen Hawking, as brilliant as he was, was the embodiment of the can-do attitude, of extreme, super human effort. Several years after his trip to California he lost the ability to speak. Then he lost all movement in his hands. He was confined to a wheelchair completely immobile and unable to speak. Even breathing was difficult. What was he going to do? Step one was to solve the breathing problem, which innovative doctors and nurses did. Step 2 was to merely survive.
That wasn’t going to do. By this time he had a mission, to inspire people to, as he says, “wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos.” Being completely unable to move and unable to speak was not going to stop this man. He had reached a type of effort critical mass. His place among the stars was set. Now to get there.
An innovative businessman from California heard about his condition and sent him a letter offering a computer program to help him communicate. Hawking seemed to always reward the bold, those who cut class lines to innovate and stand out. He accepted the offer. After several iterations, his eye glasses were fitted with a sensor. That sensor would detect movements in his cheek. He would then twitch his cheek to select letters and words from a computer screen. A computer voice would read them at six words per minute.
Now what? He needed to write his masterpiece. He found a literary agent, and, predictably, was told that a science book would never break through to the popular market. Prestigious, upmarket publishers told him variations of, Look, Dr Hawking, we are trying to save you the trouble. We’ll publish, sure, but don’t expect much success. Nobody cares about science books. Somehow he was surrounded by anti-strivers.
Until he wasn’t. Eventually, along came a strange man from New York, from a relatively lowbrow publisher of airport magazine rack novels. He wanted to make a name for himself, and was determined. He told Stephen Hawking he would publish the book and edit it, but that it needed to be rewritten. Rewritten? At six words per minute? This guy is out of his mind. That’s precisely why Hawking chose him.
They worked together intensely, sending drafts back and forth, taking flights here and there. Meetings. Calls. Late night rewrite sessions. Every draft that Hawking would submit this man would tear apart. Who does this man think he is? How dare he? But with every setback, and with every instance of class nonrecognition from this upstart American, it seems Hawking remembered himself. He kept going.
There came a time when Hawking thought this man from New York would never stop with the rewrites. Maybe he was just a smoker and a joker? But then, after this intense and frustrating period, the beauty of Hawking’s book became clear. It was a true masterpiece. A Brief History of Time ended up becoming the best selling book in history.
It is too simplistic to think of great people as accidents of nature. We tell ourselves that they are special, that they are unique, that we cannot be like them. And yet everybody has felt at one time or another the potential for greatness. The reality is that very often those who do incredible things in life were at one time regular individuals.
They have certain similarities, however, as we have covered in these last few newsletters. One is that they were voracious readers. Reading is not merely a way to get information, it is like exercise for the mind. It is through wide and deep reading that these individuals discovered something that sparked them alive. In addition, they were willing to stand out, even in the face of extreme opposition.
Powering all of this, though, is effort. Effort seems to build upon itself until it reaches a critical mass. At that point, one's trajectory to the stars becomes clear.
Understand this point: Effort is like a type of fuel. You can pour it into something with no spark and never take off. But if you are lucky enough to find something that sparks you alive, and if you pour your effort into that, you will launch into outer space and be there among stars such as Stephen Hawking.
Relevant Works Cited and Affiliate Links
Hawking, Stephen; A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, New York, 1988.
Hawking, Stephen; My Brief History. Bantam Books, New York, 2013.
Hawking, Stephen, and Mlodinow, Leonard; The Grand Design. Bantam Books, New York, 2012.
Penrose, Roger; Stephen Hawking, science’s brightest star, dies aged 76; The Guardian, 2018. Accessed Sep 2022.
Stephen Hawking’s PhD Thesis, linked from New Atlas. New Atlas commentary by Szondy, David, 2017.